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Bribery charges against Ciminelli, Laipple dropped in Buffalo Billion case

ALBANY – A key bribery charge against two former top executives of LPCiminelli embroiled in the Buffalo Billion corruption case will not be pursued by federal prosecutors, a defense lawyer told The Buffalo News on Tuesday.

Paul Shechtman, a Manhattan lawyer for Louis Ciminelli, said he was notified Friday night by federal prosecutors that the bribery charges against Ciminelli and Michael Laipple are being dropped.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan on Tuesday provided a letter prosecutors sent to the judge last Friday stating the bribery charges against the two men – as well as two Syracuse developers who are part of the case – will not be pursued.

Prosecutors did not give a reason for dropping the bribery charges.

The case involves an alleged pay-to-play scheme by the LPCiminelli executives over the Buffalo Billion development. The bid-rigging trial starts next month in Manhattan on charges that Ciminelli, Laipple and others engaged in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The bribery charge had carried a possible prison sentence of up to 20 years.

“We’re pleased because it’s halfway to total vindication,’’ said Shechtman, who's Ciminelli’s lawyer.

The lawyer spoke before a hearing in front of a federal judge, who is being asked to delay the June 11 trial date by a week or two following what prosecutors say was the discovery of key evidence that was not turned over by LPCiminelli after a subpoena was issued. The judge is reserving a final decision on a possible delay until next week.

The development on Tuesday involving Ciminelli and Laipple comes a couple weeks after another defendant, Kevin Schuler, also a former top LPCiminelli executive, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Schuler pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

At the time of Schuler’s deal, Shechtman expressed confidence that Schuler’s testimony would be helpful for Ciminelli and Laipple.

“This is some evidence of that," Shechtman said of the decision to drop the bribery charges.

Ciminelli and Laipple are due to go on trial along with Syracuse developers Joseph Gerardi and Steven Aiello, and Alain Kaloyeros, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany. They have all been charged with rigging the bidding process, and in the case of LPCiminelli, for helping to get a major contract to develop Buffalo Billion projects, including the solar manufacturing plant at RiverBend.

Shechtman said he believes insufficient evidence led to dropping the bribery charges against Ciminelli and Laipple, based on a footnote in an attachment to the cooperation agreement signed by Schuler. That attachment was not publicly released.

The trial is being closely watched in Democratic and Republican circles for its possible political affect on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the author of the Buffalo Billion program. Several of his once-close associates became defendants in the upcoming June trial and the corruption trial earlier this year that led to the conviction of Joseph Percoco, who for years was one of Cuomo's closest personal and political advisers.

Cuomo has not been accused of any wrongdoing. The June trial will provide insights into precisely what elements were involved in the letting of contracts involving some of his signature upstate development projects that totaled more than $1 billion. The trial also promises to examine the timing of big donations made to Cuomo by Ciminelli and the Syracuse developers.

These local notables could be called as witnesses in Buffalo Billion trial

Cuomo’s two chief gubernatorial rivals – Republican Marc Molinaro and Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon – have already sought to politically bloody Cuomo over the major corruption cases involving some of his key economic development efforts in upstate.

In court Tuesday, prosecutors also said they would not call Todd Howe as a witness in the trial. Howe, a former Washington lobbyist and longtime Cuomo associate, has been a cooperating witness in the Buffalo Billion and Percoco cases.

Howe, who has admitted his role in the Buffalo Billion and Percoco corruption schemes, will best be remembered during his weeklong testimony during the Percoco trial by a single event: He was arrested at his hotel room after admitting on the witness stand that he may have violated one of the conditions of cooperation agreement with prosecutors.

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