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Funds pulled from city project tied to ex-con

Over the summer, Buffalo's chief economic development and housing agency approved a $2.18 million grant to a local group whose representatives include a felon who served prison time for identity theft, money laundering and lying to federal officials.

Then, after reporters from The Buffalo News started raising questions about the man's criminal background, city officials late last week abruptly withdrew their support of the project.

The city decided to pull out of the project -- an East Side housing facility for homeless veterans -- after learning new information about the criminal background of Umar Adeyola, one of the main promoters of the project, said Scott C. Billman, attorney for the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

"Unfortunately, once [the project] was tainted with a nondisclosure, we really had no choice but to pull the trigger on it," Billman told The News on Thursday.

Despite having some knowledge of Adeyola's criminal background, the city had worked with him and his organization -- the Helping Empower At-Risk Teens Foundation, also known as the HEART Foundation -- since last May, city officials said.

BURA directors approved the $2.18 million in funding on Aug. 25.

According to Billman, city officials pulled out Thursday after finding out some things they hadn't previously known about Adeyola, including details of the crimes that led to two federal prison terms.

"The grounds for termination are the [HEART] Foundation's intentional and/or negligent failure to disclose fully the relevant and serious criminal background [of Adeyola]," Billman said in a letter to the foundation.

Critics of BURA, an agency chaired by Mayor Byron W. Brown, said the city should have done more research on Adeyola months ago.

They noted that even a two-minute Google search would have turned up news stories about Adeyola's federal imprisonment for stealing identities and money-laundering.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, Council President David A. Franczyk and South Council Member Michael P. Kearns all sit on the BURA board and all took part in the Aug. 25 vote.

All three said they never heard anything from the mayor or BURA staff members about Adeyola's criminal background when they were asked to approve the project in August.

News questions past

They said they were unaware of any problems with the project until News reporters asked them about Adeyola last week.

"I think they got caught by The Buffalo News," LoCurto said.

"It looks like, to me, [reporters] started asking questions about it, and now they're trying to cover themselves."

"Nobody from BURA ever told me anything about [Adeyola] even being involved in this project," Franczyk said.

"When they present a project for your approval, you assume the mayor and his staff have vetted the people working on the project."

In the Aug. 25 vote, BURA approved giving $2.18 million in city-administered federal funds to the HEART Foundation, based on Kensington Avenue.
The not-for-profit group asked for government funding to build a facility called Veterans Village, where homeless veterans could live and get counseling and other services.

Among those associated with the foundation is Adeyola, 41, of Amherst, who has served two federal prison terms and one in state prison.

One of those prison terms was for lying to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, the source of the funding.

The News began two weeks ago asking to interview Brown about Adeyola's role in the project, but was repeatedly told the mayor was not available to discuss the issue.

Then, late Thursday, several of the mayor's top aides, including Billman, contacted The News to say that that the city has withdrawn approval of the $2.18 million in funding.

Although the money was approved in August, the funds have not yet been released to the HEART Foundation, and will not be, Billman said.

Billman would not say what had happened to prompt the city to look further into Adeyola's background.

He did say, however, that Adeyola's name was not found during a routine search in a federal database of parties not allowed to do business with the federal government, a search the city conducted some time ago, Billman said.

A HUD spokesman said Friday that -- despite his criminal record -- Adeyola's name is not on the database.

The Rev. James A. Lewis III, chairman of the HEART Foundation's board of directors, said he blames himself for the project's demise.

The minister, who also serves by mayoral appointment as chairman of the city's Zoning Board, is Adeyola's uncle.

Several months ago, at his instruction, a lawyer for the foundation gave the city a letter disclosing that Adeyola had had some legal problems, Lewis said late Friday.

"At that time, we gave the city what we thought was full disclosure about Umar's troubles," Lewis said.

"But there were other things that he had been convicted of, that he didn't even tell me about I think he was too embarrassed We did not tell the city everything."

Mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge and Peter J. Savage III, deputy corporation counsel, both said the city never received any type of disclosure letter from the HEART Foundation.

But in the letter Billman sent to the foundation on Thursday, he confirmed that the city has had at least some knowledge of Adeyola's criminal past for some time.

"As a precaution, BURA insisted as a condition to continuation of the project, that Mr. Adeyola be prohibited from being involved in any way with the handling of the federal funds," Billman said.
He did not specify when the precaution was enacted.

Billman said Adeyola's role in the project was "integral." At one point, Billman said, Adeyola was listed as the HEART Foundation's executive director, and as a consultant for the project.
Billman said Adeyola was also involved in purchasing real estate for the project.

Through the real estate transaction and as a consultant, Adeyola could have been in a position of "benefiting directly or indirectly from the project," Billman said.

Adeyola declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

Two community leaders -- Stephen T. Banko III, who retired last year as head of the Buffalo HUD office; and Michael K. Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. -- said they both attended meetings over the summer to hear Adeyola discuss the Veterans Village project.

Both Banko and Clarke said Adeyola handed them a business card identifying him as "director" of the HEART Foundation.

Lewis, however, said Adeyola is not a director of the agency, but added that he did briefly serve as executive director about two years ago.

Adeyola is 'consultant'

"He should have scratched out the word 'director' when he handed those cards out," Lewis said.

Lewis said his nephew currently works as a "consultant" for the foundation, and said Adeyola does not handle any money for the foundation.

But when the foundation sent its annual financial report to the Internal Revenue Service in June of this year, the document said the "organization's books" are handled by Adeyola.

Franczyk said he wants to know whether, without reporters from The News asking questions, the veterans project would have been allowed to go forward, with Adeyola in an important role.

Patrick W. Welch, a veterans advocate who helped the HEART Foundation develop its concept for the project, said Friday that he was "very, very disappointed" to learn that the city is pulling the funding.

"This is a tremendous project that is needed for homeless veterans in the Buffalo area," said Welch, a Marine Corps veteran who is director of the Center for Veteran Services at Daemen College.
"This would not only help them with housing, but we would help put them in touch with social services and veterans services that they need and are entitled to."

One recent study estimated that there are more than 450 homeless vets in the Buffalo area, Welch said, and many of them have "no idea" how to deal with the red tape required to get veterans benefits.

Lewis said Friday that he is "devastated" by the city's decision to pull out of the project.

"I'm humbled to the point that I can hardly say anything," Lewis said.

"All I can hope for is that some other entity will pick up this project and all our efforts won't be in vain It's a wonderful project."

Adeyola is "totally sorry" for crimes he committed in the past, and determined to turn his life around, Lewis said.

The minister said Adeyola has seen veterans suffer in his own family and wants to be part of a project that helps veterans.

"He'd be the first to say, 'I was a damn fool,' " Lewis said of his nephew's criminal acts.

"He's on the right path now. He's a devout Muslim."

Court records show Adeyola was first sentenced to 21 months in federal prison in March 2002.

Federal agents said Adeyola illegally obtained personal information about 3,000 workers from the General Motors plant in the Town of Tonawanda while working as a temporary computer technician there in 1999-2000.

Agents said Adeyola used the identities of 19 plant workers to obtain $144,200 in fraudulent loans, and also used workers' identities to obtain $9,000 in computer equipment.

After his release from federal prison, Adeyola was arrested again, and in December 2004, a state court jury convicted him of possessing a forged check for $535.68 and petit larceny.
In that case, prosecutors said, Adeyola used a fake Canisius College check that he printed himself, and posed as a math professor from the college.
He was sentenced to a minimum of three years and six months in state prison.

Then, in September 2009, he was sent back to federal prison for a year -- this time, for wire fraud and making false statements to HUD about some property rental agreements.

Veterans Village was to be built at a former auto repair shop at 642 Broadway in the Ellicott District.

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, Ellicott Council member, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project.

Adeyola and developer David E. Pawlik, the HEART Foundation's construction manager for the project, each gave Pridgen $500 campaign donations last year.
Pawlik has donated several times to Brown's mayoral campaigns in recent years.

The donations were "absolutely not" intended to influence city officials to support Veterans Village or any other project, Pawlik said.

"I support both these men and want to see them continue doing good things for the city," Pawlik said.

Pridgen told The News he supported Veterans Village but said he didn't know who Adeyola was, or that he had given money to his campaign.

"I am a veteran. I support helping veterans, and that's why I support the project," Pridgen said.

Pawlik said no one from the HEART Foundation told him anything about Adeyola's criminal record until Oct. 6, one day after a News reporter toured the Broadway site and interviewed Lewis about it.

"I wish I had known this sooner, before making a decision to get involved with the project," Pawlik said.

"You want to be informed about who your client is."

DeGeorge said campaign donations "played no role" in the mayor's consideration of the project.

Banko, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he was impressed with Adeyola's ideas for helping veterans, but said he wished Adeyola had been upfront about spending three terms in prison.

"He was in a suit and tie, very professional and well-spoken. I was in shorts and sandals," Banko said.

"I have no bias against people who are ex-offenders and are trying to turn their lives around. We all have things in our lives to be embarrassed about, but it's better to be upfront and honest about it. This is Buffalo -- everybody knows everybody else. There's no point in hiding anything."

Banko expressed doubts that the Brown administration only recently found out full details of Adeyola's criminal past.

"I think they probably knew months ago, but they didn't know the newspaper knew about it," he said.

In Banko's view, if city officials truly believe in helping homeless veterans, they should make the Veterans Village project work -- if not with the HEART Foundation, then some other group.

"I was excited about this project, and the city should be, too," Banko said. "They were willing to invest $2 million in this. They should find some way to make it happen."

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