ALBANY – The politicians who received campaign contributions from developer Louis P. Ciminelli and his allies are scrambling to figure out what to do with that money after the Buffalo construction executive was charged last week as part of a sweeping statewide pay-to-play scandal.
The reactions from local and state leaders so far run the gamut: Some are giving back the donations. Some are waiting to see how the criminal case plays out. And some say they will donate the money to charities.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the biggest recipient of money from Ciminelli or interests tied to him, has “set aside” more than $350,000 in donations from Ciminelli, a Syracuse developer and others who were named in the corruption case brought last week by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.
That means the money will be put into a separate account in case prosecutors decide to pursue “forfeiture recoveries” against the defendants at some point in the future, according to Basil A. Smikle Jr., executive director of the state Democratic Party. It is uncertain how the money will actually show in Cuomo’s future campaign finance filings because such segregation of donations is unusual.
Cuomo said in Manhattan on Wednesday that it “makes no sense” to return money to the individuals charged last week.
“Why would you want to enrich them?” Cuomo said.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who received $5,000 in donations from Ciminelli in 2014, is following Cuomo’s path.
“In light of the allegations, any donations the lieutenant governor’s campaign received from people or companies related to the U.S. attorney’s indictments will be segregated until the case has been completed, should funds be needed for forfeiture recoveries,” said Hochul spokesman Chris White.
White said the pot of contributions that she will segregate from her other donations totals $6,000 – $5,000 from Ciminelli and $1,000 from former lobbyist Todd R. Howe, who is among the nine people charged in the case.
The state’s other two statewide officeholders are taking different routes.
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is giving to charity a total of $15,722 in donations from people connected to the scandal, including Ciminelli.
Schneiderman last week brought charges against a former top State University of New York official, Alain E. Kaloyeros, and an Albany developer on the same day as Bharara announced charges against nine defendants, including Kaloyeros, in the federal case.
“The campaign will donate an equivalent amount to charity due to the Attorney General’s ongoing investigation, and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Schneiderman’s office said in a statement Wednesday.
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is returning $23,700 to three individuals charged last week; $20,000 of that amount came from Ciminelli in three separate donations to the state’s chief fiscal watchdog.
“In light of the recent charges against these individuals, Tom DiNapoli is returning donations from all individuals charged,” said Doug Forand, the comptroller’s campaign spokesman.
In October 2014, the Joint Schools Construction Board unanimously requested that DiNapoli audit the $1.3 billion reconstruction effort for the Buffalo Public Schools that was managed by LPCiminelli.
That request followed some board members accusing LPCiminelli of raking in profits that greatly exceeded industry standards, as well as coverage by The Buffalo News that also raised questions about the company’s profit margin on the project.
Although DiNapoli’s predecessor as state comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, had audited the first phase of the Buffalo schools reconstruction in 2004 and 2006, DiNapoli’s deputy comptroller said the Comptroller’s Office “does not presently plan to engage an audit of the program at this time” and encouraged the board to continue pursuing a separate independent audit of the program.
Ciminelli’s political money trail is a long and deep-pocketed one, touching a who’s who of politicians in Western New York.
One Democratic candidate for the State Senate has been using the Ciminelli money ties as ammunition against her Republican opponent in one of the most closely watched legislative races in New York. Amber A. Small on Wednesday continued pounding the issue against Republican Christopher L. Jacobs, the Erie County clerk, in their 60th District race. She said Jacobs needs to return the thousands of dollars he has received over the last decade from LPCiminelli and Ciminelli family members.
Jacobs, who was given $5,500 by Ciminelli between 2011 and 2014, said he received that money in his races for county clerk, not for the Senate, and already donated that money to charity earlier this week.
Louis Ciminelli has been a generous supporter of state lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly and Senate.
He also has been generous with city and county leaders.
As Cuomo and Hochul pledged to do, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said he would set aside the Ciminelli contributions pending the outcome of the legal case. Brown received $21,500 from Ciminelli between 2006 and 2015.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who received a single $1,000 donation from Ciminelli, said he would donate the money to charity if Ciminelli is convicted or pleads guilty in the criminal case.
Bryan Fiume, chief of staff for County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., said he knows of no plans by Mychajliw regarding the $1,250 he received from Ciminelli, saying that it was received some time ago and has probably already been spent.
City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder was out of the country and not available to comment Wednesday on what he will do with the $9,150 he received from Ciminelli and associates.
Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, received a total of $3,000 from Ciminelli between 2010 and 2014.
“I think it’s premature,” Gallivan said about how he will handle the contributions. “We don’t know yet what will happen in court.”
Gallivan noted that it has been several years since he received Ciminelli donations and that they “clearly had nothing to do with the issue at hand.”
“Certainly if there was wrongdoing, those that committed acts of wrongdoing should be held accountable,” Gallivan added.
Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said he has received $5,000 in Ciminelli donations in the current campaign cycle.
A review by The News of his filings shows that, in total, he has received $16,500 from Ciminelli since 2007. Of that, $1,500 came while Kennedy was a member of the County Legislature and $15,000 since 2011.
“We’ll be waiting to see how this court case plays out,” Kennedy said, “and if, in fact, Mr. Ciminelli is convicted of the charges, then we’ll be donating that money to charity to be determined.”
Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said she has received $18,000 from Ciminelli or people associated with his firm since 2007. A review by The News determined that she received $20,575 from Ciminelli and his companies since 2007.
She said Ciminelli and the others have each year bought a table at the annual “Crystal Ball” that the lawmaker hosts to raise money for her campaign.
“I have to say I know these people personally and I’m grateful for their support because I can’t run for office without having a campaign coffer,” she said.
If those who contributed to her campaign are found guilty, Peoples-Stokes said, she would calculate their donations versus the costs of holding the annual fundraiser and donate the difference to an educational charity in Buffalo.
“The bottom line is, we should publicly finance campaigns and we wouldn’t have these problems,” Peoples-Stokes said.