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Witness: 'Buffalo Billion' process put Ciminelli 'in the driver's seat'

NEW YORK – The prosecution’s "star witness" could see his testimony wrapped up today, further evidence that the Buffalo Billion corruption trial may be moving far faster than originally predicted by defense and prosecution lawyers.

Kevin Schuler, a former senior executive at Buffalo’s LPCiminelli, resumed his testimony this morning in a Manhattan courtroom where the trial of four men, including Louis Ciminelli, the company’s former head, face potentially decades in prison if convicted of rigging bids for projects in Buffalo and Syracuse.

Schuler, 47, on Thursday took the stand for less than 90 minutes, but his testimony offered potentially damaging claims for Ciminelli and Alain Kaloyeros, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany who is also on trial for his role in the alleged conspiracy.

On Monday, he repeatedly testified that input it was able to give in crafting request for proposals put LPCiminelli “in the driver’s seat” to win big contract. He said the original RFP demanded of bidders 50 years’ real estate experience in Buffalo, favoring 52-year-old LPCiminelli. Schuler thought: "I think somebody put this in to help us ... I’d never seen a requirement like that.”

Schuler, who pleaded guilty earlier this year for his role in the matter, has been cooperating with federal prosecutors as they seek to prove that a request for proposals process was rigged for what would eventually become the $750 million solar plant project at Buffalo’s RiverBend.

“There was a competitive process for the award of those projects. And we had significant influence over the project. We had influence into the RFP, influence into the process that was going to select the winner, so that we would be chosen,’’ Schuler testified on Thursday. (The court is not in session on Fridays.)

Schuler recalled how LPCiminelli hired – at $25,000 per month – a lobbyist with long political ties to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and some of his top former aides, including Joseph Percoco, who himself was found guilty in a separate corruption case earlier this year.

Todd Howe, who has also pleaded guilty for his role in both the Percoco and Buffalo Billion cases, was hired by Kaloyeros, according to Schuler, because the SUNY leader did not have “a solid relationship” in the early years of Cuomo’s administration after he became governor in 2011.

But Howe was warned away by one Cuomo aide of doing business with Kaloyeros because the administration didn’t trust him, Schuler said. Howe was offered more money by Kaloyeros – using public funds – to represent him. “Those are magic words for Todd,’’ Judge Valerie Caproni said during a sidebar conference with lawyers outside of the jury members’ earshot.

Schuler said Howe had an impact on Kaloyeros.

“What Todd had essentially done is essentially teach Dr. Kaloyeros, if you will, the importance of giving credit to the governor for the good stuff that was going on. Make sure the second floor, which is the governor's office, is well aware of what you're up to. So that they would be supportive, and that you're giving them credit. And when, as Howe said, as that unfolded and Dr. K was giving them credit, the trust was built up. And by 2013, he was considered a rock star by the second floor,” Schuler testified Thursday.

In testimony Monday, Schuler admitted he had indirect communications - through Todd Howe - with Kaloyeros during RFP “black-out period” banning contacts by bidders.

Schuler earlier testified about a key tour of the RiverBend site in 2013 that included Ciminelli, Kaloyeros, Howe and others, and which was led by Peter Cutler, a longtime Buffalo inside player who was working for Cuomo at the time. The tour occurred before the bidding process began.

Schuler also testified Thursday that it was unusual that LPCiminelli would be asked by an entity to help craft an RFP document that would make the company look especially good during the selection process for a project.

“Do you think that’s consistent with your understanding of a competitive RFP process?’’ the prosecutor, Matthew Podolsky from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, asked Schuler.

“No, it would not be,’’ Schuler replied, according to a transcript of his testimony.

Paul Shechtman, Ciminelli’s lawyer, said he expected three hours of questioning for Schuler, whose career has taken him since graduating from the University at Buffalo to the state Legislature and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership before joining LPCiminelli.

If there is time, prosecutors will then call on a special agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Monday afternoon.

The case was originally projected to last as long as six weeks. But the judge held out the optimistic theory that the witness testimony could wrap up this week. That led to one defense lawyer to ask her to delay summations until after the July 4 holiday – when the trial is scheduled to be held only on Monday and Tuesday of that week.

Two Syracuse developers – Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi – are on trial with Ciminelli and Kaloyeros.

On Sunday, Shechtman wrote the judge asking that two individuals the prosecution plans to call – including an executive with Rochester’s LeChase Construction Services that bid on the Buffalo Billion RFP along with Buffalo’s Development Co. – be barred from testifying. The LeChase executive, Steven Bills, is expected to testify about concerns of LPCiminelli’s political influence. The Ciminelli lawyer also asked that she limit the scope of Schuler’s testimony on Monday.

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