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Brown backs grant to accused developer; Jeremiah Partnership faces $1.4 million suit that charges conspiracy, racketeering

Mayor Byron W. Brown wants the city to give $764,000 in state money to a developer who previously was accused of a pay-to-play scheme.

The mayor's request to provide the money to the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse's Jeremiah Partnership for a renovation and construction project for a Head Start program has been before the Common Council since September, but some city lawmakers are asking questions about the project and not getting many answers.

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns said lawmakers haven't been given adequate information about the construction and renovation of the Bethel Head Start on Main Street, and he wants to ask the city's chief planner about it during a public session.

"There's an item that's about three quarters of a million dollars," Kearns said. "We have to know what we're voting for."

Kearns said city planner Brendan R. Mehaffy told him that the Empire State Development Corp. -- which pledged the funds through the RESTORE program -- already has informed the Jeremiah Partnership it could move ahead with the project.

Kearns also said the Council invited Mehaffy to its bimonthly caucus this past Monday in order to ask him some questions, but Mehaffy did not attend.

Mehaffy has met with some lawmakers individually this week about the project, and will be invited to Tuesday's meeting of the Council's Finance Committee.

The News made several requests to interview Mehaffy about the project, but Brown spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge did not grant the requests.

DeGeorge said Mehaffy had a scheduling conflict last Monday, and Mehaffy will attend Tuesday's committee meeting.

The $896,075 construction project is located next to the Bethel Head Start administrative offices at 1461 Main St., between Utica and Ferry streets. Construction on the project began in May, according to documents Mehaffy filed with the Council.

The project involves renovating a vacant 8,000-square-foot building, demolishing a garage, building a new 1,024-square-foot garage and repaving an existing parking lot, according to documents supplied to the Council. What the facilities would be used for once construction is completed was not specified in the documents.

Grant documents indicate the funding sources for the project include the potential state award plus $132,499, or about 15 percent of the total costs, from Bethel Community Development Corp. A subsidiary of Bethel, 1461 Main Street LLC, owns the property, according to the state.

The documents did not contain any breakdown of costs other than saying $820,075 would cover demolition, construction and renovations, with $76,000 for "soft costs."

It is not known whether Bethel Head Start plans to increase the number of children who attend its program thanks to the construction project.

Its website lists 10 centers in the area where it offers services. A biography of Stenhouse on the Uncrowned Community Builders' website claims Bethel Head Start is the oldest and largest program in Western New York.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said he met with Mehaffy on Tuesday and "asked fundamental questions about the project," including "exactly what the money was being used for."

LoCurto said one specific question involves how much funding would go toward knocking down the parking ramp.

Meanwhile, a $1.4 million civil suit filed by a Cleveland developer in June accuses Brown, Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith and Stenhouse, who heads the Jeremiah Partnership, of conspiracy and racketeering.

The suit, filed by NRP Corp., alleges the parties conspired to get Stenhouse or a development group associated with him a job in a proposed housing project.

Brown put a halt to the project when NRP declined to go along with the alleged requirements, the suit claims.

Stenhouse, whose partnership is a group of seven East Side churches, declined to answer any questions posed by a Buffalo News reporter about the project or the grant.

"I think you need to talk to the City of Buffalo," Stenhouse said by phone, repeatedly refusing to discuss those matters.

Bethel Community Development Corp. is heading up the project. Stenhouse heads the development outfit and is executive director of Bethel Head Start.

Between 2004 and March 2010, Stenhouse's development organization received about $5 million from City Hall, The News reported last year, making Stenhouse one of the city's top developers.

Kearns said he wants to find out why the project was started before formal approval was given by the city or the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, who specifically told the developer it could move forward and whether the city could be liable if another party gave Stenhouse the go ahead.

An Empire State Development Corp. spokeswoman was asked by The News for a breakdown of budget information, but none was provided.

Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen has recused himself from recent procedural votes regarding the grant, the most recent of which sent the proposal back to the Council's Finance Committee.

Pridgen is pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, which is not listed as a member the Jeremiah Partnership.

Pridgen, who said he does not know any details about the project, said he does not want it to seem like he's pushing a project "just because I have a relationship with those pastors."

The project is scheduled to be completed in December, according to grant documents presented to the Council.

Brown has previously denied the allegations made by NRP in its lawsuit. Smith, whose Masten District includes the site of the project, did not return a call to comment.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com