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Witness: LPCiminelli was early favorite to win Buffalo Billion deal

NEW YORK – Driver’s seat.

Kevin Schuler, the former LPCiminelli executive testifying Monday on behalf of prosecutors, spoke the term to describe where the Buffalo general contracting firm stood from the beginning in its quest to land the state’s lucrative Buffalo Billion contract.

His hours on the stand could appear to contradict official claims in the past that the Buffalo Billion deal was fairly awarded.

“I think from the earliest days we’d been in on the ground floor. Every step along the way just reinforced that,’’ Schuler said during a full day of testimony Monday in a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan, where three men, including former LPCiminelli boss Louis Ciminelli, are accused in a bid-rigging scheme that landed the firm the $750 million solar plant project at RiverBend.

Schuler described the alleged inside help LPCiminelli received from Todd Howe, a former lobbyist who was at the same time in 2013 and 2014 representing both the Buffalo firm and a state college in Albany whose ex-leader, Alain Kaloyeros, is also accused in the bid-rigging conspiracy.

One episode stood out in the Buffalo Billion award by Fort Schuyler Management Corp., a private wing created by the state university system to handle economic development projects from Buffalo to Albany.

On Nov. 6, 2013, while the request for proposal process was underway to select what was called a preferred developer for future Buffalo projects, Schuler, a Ciminelli insider, wrote to Howe, a longtime ally of Cuomo, to express worries that a company called M&W Group was jockeying to possibly get the contract deal in Buffalo.

M&W Group was already a big contractor for Kaloyeros at the college in Albany, and Kaloyeros had been tapped by Cuomo to handle the Buffalo Billion and other deals upstate.

Four minutes after Schuler reached out to Howe, Kaloyeros fired off an email to an M&W executive saying neither his company, nor anyone else, would be singled out for selection in what the ex-SUNY leader called a “pre-cooked process.”

Schuler, on the witness stand Monday, questioned that.

“I would say we were being singled out favorably so it isn’t true,’’ he testified, of the Kaloyeros note to the M&W executive.

That episode came a couple months after Kaloyeros, according to evidence presented Monday, sent along to Ciminelli a sample RFP – from a Syracuse project already awarded – and said he could “fine-tune” it for use in an RFP submission for the Buffalo Billion bidding process.

Schuler said LPCiminelli executives were the only local developers invited in the summer of 2013 by state officials to tour potential development sites in Buffalo.

Schuler acknowledged he was in indirect contact – through Howe – with Kaloyeros during what he called a “blackout period” when communication between bidders and the letting agency is not permitted.

Schuler said LPCiminelli was asked for input in crafting the Buffalo Billion RFP.

In one provision, potential bidders, to be successful, were told in 2013 they had to have 50 years’ worth of construction experience in the Buffalo area. In court, Schuler held up a shirt produced – in 2011 – celebrating the firm’s 50th anniversary of its founding in 1961.

The 50-year requirement was spotted by an LPCiminelli executive after issuance of the RFP, which Cuomo announced in March 2014 as being won by LPCiminelli. The McGuire Development Group won a smaller piece of that deal for a different project down the road.

“I think someone put this in to help us … and I’d never seen a requirement like that,’’ Schuler said of the 50-year wording.

Officials later changed it to 15 years’ of Buffalo experience, saying that the 50-year language had been a typo.

Schuler testified about a Sept. 3, 2013, dinner at Ciminelli’s house in Buffalo where Kaloyeros was introduced to business leaders. Howe also attended. It was one of two dinner gatherings between Ciminelli and Kaloyeros, who later wrote that LPCiminelli needed to cash his checks to reimburse the firm for entertaining the SUNY leader or risk not being a part of the RFP process.

Schuler recalled a meeting in summer of 2013 at LPCiminelli’s headquarters with several company executives – including himself – and Howe. Two of the topics were RFP plans for Buffalo and Syracuse.

“Fundraising for the governor was on the agenda,’’ Schuler testified.

In what could be an important point in the trial, for Cuomo, prosecutors did not pursue testimony from Schuler about Ciminelli donations to the governor.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, which is conducting the prosecution, said it wanted to present information on more than $100,000 in donations to Cuomo from Ciminelli and his family, as well as details about a 2013 fundraiser Ciminelli hosted at his home with Cuomo that netted $250,000 in contributions to the governor’s campaign.

The governor has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

During questioning from Reid Weingarten, one of Kaloyeros’ lawyers, Schuler acknowledged that a series of communications from various people, including Howe, did not prove that Kaloyeros was directly aware of or knew of what was taking place behind the scenes. Under the defense lawyer’s questioning, Schuler said not all of what he called talking “points” about language that should go into the Buffalo Billion RFP made it into the final document.

One of the things that did go in was wording that the winning bidder be based in Buffalo. Schuler said LPCiminelli was concerned about what he called “national” construction companies edging out the firm for a major Buffalo project.

The local protectionist-style wording that Schuler said he proposed for the RFP was meant to “prevent (national companies) from competing” for the Buffalo Billion deal.

LPCiminelli was awarded preferred developer status for future, though unnamed, projects in 2014. Schuler, however, said LPCiminelli had long assumed the biggest project under the Buffalo Billion umbrella would be the RiverBend development, which started at $225 million and jumped to $750 million after SolarCity purchased one of the solar firms heading to Buffalo.

LPCiminelli built that now-completed project.

Ciminelli and Kaloyeros, along with two Syracuse developers – Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi – are accused of engaging in conspiracy and wire fraud.

Schuler earlier this spring pleaded guilty for his role, and Monday said it is his “great hope” that he be given probation instead of the potential 40-year sentence he could face. Schuler praised Ciminelli’s leadership in the community.

Schuler was asked about LPCiminelli’s RFP application in which the company wrote “None,” asking if it had retained anyone to help influence the RFP award. It had hired Howe.

“Clearly, we were trying to influence the procurement process,’’ Schuler said.

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