Whether it’s business, politics or charity in Buffalo, chances are good Louis Ciminelli is knee deep in it.
Like his father Frank, the company founder, Lou Ciminelli wears a wide variety of hats and, together, they make him one of the most connected people in Western New York.
He’s chairman of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, serves on the board of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and recently donated $1 million to help restore the historic Hayes Hall at the University at Buffalo.
He also is a major political player, a big-money contributor with a reputation for giving to Republicans and Democrats, a developer with access to virtually every governor since George Pataki.
And on Thursday, Ciminelli added a new hat – criminal defendant.
Ciminelli, chairman and CEO of LPCiminelli, faces bribery and bid-rigging charges in connection with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s upstate development program. Ciminelli and two other company executives are accused of bribing a former Albany lobbyist in an effort to gain an unfair advantage over other contractors seeking work from the state.
His friends don’t believe it.
“I’ve known this guy like a brother,” said Anthony J. Baynes, a well-known businessman and longtime family friend. “I know him to be a stand-up individual who cares deeply for this community and his family.”
A fixture in the Buffalo development community for three decades, Ciminelli took the company his father started and made it even bigger and more successful. Under Ciminelli, the company earned a reputation for winning lucrative state contracts, including one to build the SolarCity solar panel factory in South Buffalo.
The company was also the contractor on the $1.3 billion project to rebuild Buffalo’s schools and, more recently, the $375 million project to build UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Those deals helped turn LPCiminelli into one of the nation’s 150 biggest contractors and gave the company the size to push into markets beyond the Buffalo Niagara region, not only in upstate New York but also in the East Coast and the Midwest.
The criminal charges against LPCiminelli executives aren’t expected to have any effect on the firm’s ongoing work at the Medical Campus, a UB spokesman said. The eight-story, 540,000-square-foot complex is not part of the Buffalo Billion and the bulk of the work is already done.
“The university has no reason to believe at this time that the project’s timetable will be impacted by today’s news,” said UB spokesman John DellaContrada.
The company, which has its headquarters on Main Street in Buffalo, employs more than 200 people.
While building his company, Ciminelli also became an active political and civic donor.
“He touches everything,” said Daniel C. Oliverio, Ciminelli’s defense lawyer and a friend for more than 20 years. “I’ve watched what he’s done in this community. It’s not a secret.”
Prosecutors also point to Ciminelli’s political involvement, but they insist his contributions were made to buy access and influence in Albany and ultimately win him more contracts.
He has a history of giving to most governors and, over the last two campaigns, contributed $96,500 to Cuomo. Those contributions included $25,000 three weeks before his firm secured the construction job at SolarCity.
One of LPCiminelli’s earliest successes was winning the Buffalo schools’ reconstruction project, a decade-long effort that eventually led to a dispute over how much the company profited from the project.
A Buffalo News analysis, based on documents available last year, determined the company’s profit could have amounted to $400 million, or triple what is typical in the industry.
“We paid anywhere from 30 to 40 to 50 percent on top of our costs?" School Board member Larry Quinn said last year. “That’s not a good deal. That’s a terrible deal, and it went on for 10 years.” The school board later sued Ciminelli.
Ciminelli executives claim the company worked under a contractual arrangement that shifted much of the financial risk from potential cost overruns in the project to LPCiminelli.
Baynes, who has known Ciminelli for decades and considered his late father a mentor, said the allegations were difficult to hear and even more difficult to believe.
He reeled off a laundry list of charities Ciminelli is active in, including the Bison Children’s Scholarship Fund, a private tuition assistance program for low-income elementary school students interested in attending private elementary schools.
“Louis would give money to the kids without people even knowing it,” Baynes said. “He probably wouldn’t want me telling that story. But it needs to be told.”
Two other LPCiminelli executives – Kevin Schuler and Michael Laipple – also were charged Thursday.
Ciminelli has been chairman of the BPO’s board for two terms, assuming the office in 2012. He has been generous to the orchestra, and his tenure has been a time of prosperity. In 2015, when his 60th birthday coincided with the BPO’s fall season-opening gala, Ciminelli gave the orchestra a gift of $1 million. He donated the money in honor of Dan Hart, the BPO’s executive director, and it kicked off a fundraising initiative dubbed the Crescendo Campaign.
In June, Ciminelli and an anonymous donor underwrote a very popular appearance at Kleinhans Music Hall by the Forte Tenors. All proceeds from the concert went to Catholic Charities. He also established a tradition of underwriting the orchestra’s season-opening celebration, including the most recent gala, which took place Sept. 17. The gala this year was unusually festive, with the BPO’s musicians celebrating a new six-year contract.
Hart, reached Thursday, said he was broadsided by the news of the corruption probe.
“You never know what will happen,” he said of the news.
He said that Ciminelli’s term as chairman is up, a decision the board members agreed on in July. The position routinely changes hand every few years.
“The baton is being passed this Tuesday to Steve Swift in the annual meeting,” Hart said. Stephen Swift, of HealthNow New York, has been serving as treasurer of the board. Hart said the press releases announcing the news were already prepared.
Hart expressed gratitude to Ciminelli for his achievements as chair of the BPO’s board.
“He served two great terms, and we made a lot of progress during that time,” he said.
News Staff Reporters Jonathan D. Epstein and Mary Kunz Goldman contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com