NEW YORK – Prosecution star witness Kevin Schuler wrapped up his testimony in the Buffalo Billion trial today, as defense lawyers sought to both rebut evidence from the former LPCiminelli’s executive and to make their case that their clients were unaware and not involved in any bid-rigging conspiracy for upstate economic development projects.
Reid Weingarten, a lawyer for ex-SUNY Polytechnic Institute leader Alain Kaloyeros, got out of Schuler that the nickname within LPCiminelli for Kaloyeros was "AK-47," which was used to describe the tough negotiating style Kaloyeros brought to the negotiating table for a contract with the Buffalo firm that eventually became the $750 million solar manufacturing plant at RiverBend. He said Kaloyeros was rude enough on the phone that one LPCiminelli executive talked of driving to Albany to have it out with him.
The lawyer went through an array of exhibits showing that much of the information turned over to LPCiminelli executives came via Todd Howe, the former Washington lobbyist and longtime ally to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who had a lobbying and consulting deal to represent both LPCiminelli and Kaloyeros’ SUNY school in Albany.
But before Schuler wrapped up his testimony that began Thursday, prosecutors came back to a Sept. 9, 2013, email from Kaloyeros to LPCiminelli head Louis Ciminelli. In it, the Buffalo construction executive was given bidding information about a Syracuse project that Kaloyeros wrote could be used in crafting a bidding response for Buffalo projects that early the next year was awarded to Ciminelli’s firm.
LPCiminelli in 2014 was awarded “preferred developer” status for future projects associated with Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program, which Kaloyeros by that point was spearheading on behalf of the governor. Though the deal wasn’t for any specific projects, Schuler said, it was his understanding that the main construction project would be for RiverBend, which started at $225 million before rising to a $750 million agreement to build the sprawling solar plant.
Ciminelli and Kaloyeros are charged with engaging in a bid-rigging deal that had the Fort Schuyler Management Corp., an entity associated with SUNY that was led by Kaloyeros, award the Buffalo Billion deal to LPCiminelli. Prosecutors say the "request for proposals" was tailored – and partly drafted by – LPCiminelli to bolster the company's odds of winning the contract.
Repeatedly, Weingarten asked Schuler if various documents had any connections to Ciminelli. Over and over, Schuler, who worked for Ciminelli for 11 years, said he knew of no such fingerprints. Instead, defense lawyers sought to portray Howe as the person writing many of the emails to LPCiminelli executives or Kaloyeros.
But prosecutors then brought up the email between Kaloyeros and Ciminelli over using the Syracuse RFP as a template for what LPCiminelli could build upon with ideas for the subsequent Buffalo Billion RFP. “Do you see Todd Howe’s name anywhere on this exhibit?" Matthew D. Podolsky, one of the federal prosecutors trying the case, asked Schuler.
“No, I do not," Schuler responded.
Schuler pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged conspiracy over the awarding of one of Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development projects. He is a cooperating witness for prosecutors in the trial. Howe, too, has pleaded to a number of felonies, including his role in the Buffalo Billion case and a previous corruption trial involving longtime Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco.
At issue is whether the books were “cooked,’’ a term used often during the trial, to benefit LPCiminelli by, in part, dissuading some competitors from trying to win the Buffalo Billion deal awarded in 2014 to the Buffalo firm. At first, it meant RFP language seeking contractors with 50 years’ worth of experience in Buffalo – a requirement that officials said was a mistake and was later changed to 15 years – and a requirement that the winning bidder be based in the Buffalo area.
Schuler testified Tuesday that Ciminelli got visibly angry when he heard about the 50-year requirement because of a concern that it could force a whole re-working of the bidding process.
“Good afternoon Maestro," wrote Ciminelli to Kaloyeros on April 9, 2014, noting that a blackout period for bidders not to be in contact with Fort Schuyler officials had come to an end.
A month later, LPCiminelli learned that the original project for RiverBend – featuring two smaller solar companies – was about to expand with the entry of California-based SolarCity. That company, according to one exhibit, was promising 2,200 jobs and $4 billion in investment in Buffalo. Kaloyeros emailed Peter Cutler, a longtime Buffalo political and government fixture who was then working for Cuomo, and told him the good news. Kaloyeros told him to keep it confidential.
“This is huge. Confidential. Congratulations!’’ Cutler wrote to Howe the next day.
After LPCiminelli won the Buffalo Billion deal, it later had to negotiate terms for the RiverBend deal. At one point, Kaloyeros complained about LPCiminelli during stalled talks, saying the company was trying to “nitpick” in order to find “every way possible to make more money," according to one exhibit shown to jurors today. At one point, the negotiations were going badly enough that Schuler said he feared Fort Schuyler was going to drop LPCiminelli in favor of another company that already had big dealings with SUNY Polytechnic in Albany.
LPCiminelli got hooked up with Howe and his Albany-based firm, Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, at a time when the Buffalo builder was trying to land a school construction project in Syracuse. It lost out on that deal, Schuler said, because the bidding document was crafted in such a way as to favor a larger national-type firm.
Paul Shechtman, Ciminelli’s lawyer, noted that Buffalo had fallen on hard economic times. “A lot of announcements and not a lot of progress," Schuler responded. He noted as an example stalled efforts for the UB2020 real estate program in Buffalo. The outlook began to brighten, Schuler said, after Ciminelli went to Albany to tour Kaloyeros’ nanotechnology facility at the SUNY school in Albany in May 2013. The two men bonded over several things, including a love of high-end sports cars.
Two months later, Kaloyeros was in Buffalo getting a tour of possible sites for an expansion of high-tech developments, including RiverBend. The sole real estate company on the tour: LPCiminelli.
“At the end of the day, nano was coming to Buffalo?" Shechtman asked Schuler.
“Yes, in some way, shape or form," Schuler said.