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Buffalo Billion trial date put off until next May – at least

ALBANY – Louis Ciminelli and the other Buffalo defendants will be tried separately from Joseph Percocco, a former top aide to the governor, even though all eight defendants were part of the federal prosecution alleging bid rigging and corruption in state development projects.

A federal judge has “severed” the corruption trials and also delayed the starts of the trials, scheduling them in the midst of an expected re-election bid by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni ordered the trial for six of the individuals – including Ciminelli and former SUNY Polytechnic head Alain Kaloyeros – for “not sooner than” next May 15.

A separate trial for Percoco, a longtime friend of Cuomo, and other individuals will start Jan. 8.

The judge did not set a location for the two trials, but they were scheduled to take place in her lower Manhattan courtroom. Ciminelli, along with other defendants in the Buffalo Billion case, have sought to transfer the case to Buffalo.

In her two-page written order, the judge noted that both prosecutors and defense lawyers were on board with separating the case into two trials.

[Judge's order in Buffalo Billion trial]

Federal prosecutors last year brought a wide-ranging case against Percoco, Ciminelli and others over alleged bid-rigging and bribery charges connected to economic development projects from Buffalo to Orange County.

Lawyers for Ciminelli, the head of Buffalo’s biggest construction contracting firm, had sought to delay the start of the trial until later this year because of serious health conditions affecting Ciminelli. The health concerns, not specifically identified in recent document unsealed in the case, were said by Ciminelli’s lawyers to prevent him from participating in his defense case until after a previously scheduled October start date for the trial.

The cases have implications for Cuomo’s political future. Though not accused of any wrongdoing, Cuomo will have to react to two trials that will now drag on over at least the first half of 2018 and involve either close former advisers or major upstate economic development projects that he spearheaded. The governor is expected to seek re-election in November 2018.

The judge said that a “discretionary severance is appropriate” so that there will now be two trials in the case originally brought as one by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The former prosecutor, fired earlier this year by President Donald Trump, began his probe several years ago in the awarding of the Buffalo Billion contract – led by the $750 million construction deal at the SolarCity plant in Buffalo – that was awarded by the state to LPCiminelli.

Federal prosecutors recently said they did not object to two trials – one focusing on accusations against Percoco and others and the second involving upstate economic development projects in Buffalo and Syracuse. Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, the head of the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, recently told the judge that breaking the case into two trials is fair in order to accommodate scheduling conflicts for defense lawyers as well as Ciminelli’s health issues. He said the two separate trials will also result in less confusion among jurors in the sweeping set of charges.

The first case, to begin Jan. 8, will include alleged corruption charges against Percoco and two Syracuse developers. The second case, starting no sooner than May 8, will include the alleged charges against Ciminelli and two former LPCiminelli executives, as well as Kaloyeros and the two Syracuse developers.

The judge opened the door to a potentially later start than May 8, ordering the defense lawyers to report previously existing trial commitments they might have between next May 1 and Sept. 30.

Daniel Oliverio, Ciminelli’s lawyer, said it is not unusual for a large and complex case to be severed into separate trials. Oliverio said the judge has not yet ruled on the request by several defendants, including Ciminelli, to move the case against three former LPCiminellli executives, along with Kaloyeros and two Syracuse developers, to a courtroom in Buffalo.

“We look forward to the court’s decision on that motion and on our view of severance,’’ Oliverio said.

A lawyer for Percoco and Kaloyeros did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District, which is prosecuting the cases, declined comment Wednesday morning.

A ninth individual, Todd Howe, a longtime Cuomo ally, pleaded guilty in connection with the cases. Howe has been cooperating with investigators for more than a year as part of his plea deal.

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