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Parade of witnesses reveals twists and turns in Buffalo Billion trial

NEW YORK – Prosecutors in the Buffalo Billion corruption trial brought witnesses and introduced evidence Wednesday that touched on everything from key emails being deleted by defendants, media stonewalling and the embedding of a lobbyist, Todd Howe, into a state university post so he could be the “eyes and ears” of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration.

Legal wrangling through the day kept prosecutors, as expected, from resting their case in the Buffalo Billion trial – whose defendants include longtime Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute head Alain Kaloyeros.

In perhaps an ambitious schedule, however, Judge Valerie Caproni told jurors Wednesday evening that both the prosecution and defense could rest their cases by sometime Thursday.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office put on their final three witnesses, whose testimony and accompanying pieces of evidence against the defendants ran the legal and political gamut about how the Buffalo Billion deal was awarded to Buffalo’s LPCiminelli.

It put on display an ensuing frenzy by state officials when scrutiny over the matter quickly morphed into a full-blown federal investigation that entered the Buffalo Billion program into the long litany of public corruption scandals to hit Albany in recent years.

The day began with an appearance by FBI Special Agent Kathleen Garver from the Buffalo Field Office. She testified about interviews she conducted with individuals from Western New York – they were not named – who raised concerns in the fall of 2015 about the awarding of the Buffalo Billion contract to LPCiminelli. Her testimony, lasting less than a half hour, included details about an interview she conducted of Joseph Gerardi, one of two Syracuse developers on trial with Ciminelli and Kaloyeros.

Next up was Justin Ellard, a special agent with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.

He testified that emails that prosecutors said pointed to a conspiracy involving Kaloyeros and Ciminelli were deleted between the time investigators asked Google to preserve the two men’s Gmail accounts and when federal subpoenas were issued, for a couple years’ worth of their emails.

Among them was an email, later obtained by prosecutors, showing Kaloyeros in 2013 passing along to Ciminelli a draft bidding document used for a Syracuse economic development program that would become a template for the Buffalo Billion request for proposals issued later that year by a nonprofit arm of SUNY Polytechnic and won in early 2014 by LPCiminelli.

“Hopefully, this should give you a sense of where we’re going with this,’’ Kaloyeros wrote Ciminelli in September 2013, one exhibit showed.

The prosecution’s case centers on allegations that the Buffalo Billion request for proposal process was rigged in favor of Ciminelli, a donor to Cuomo’s campaign. LPCiminelli won the rights to be declared the preferred developer for the Buffalo program, which later resulted in a $750 million publicly financed project to build the solar plant at RiverBend.

There was far more as the afternoon went on Wednesday.

David Doyle, a former media aide for Cuomo when he was both attorney general and governor, described how Kaloyeros hired him as his communications adviser at SUNY Polytechnic in Albany in 2015. As an Albany native, Doyle said he was excited to join the SUNY college, which grew tremendously over the years and was set to expand its imprint with new high-tech projects in Buffalo and elsewhere upstate.

Before his Wednesday testimony concluded, Doyle had revealed several matters, including:

*  Testimony that the Cuomo administration, when it took office in 2012, was not keen on working with Kaloyeros, and Kaloyeros was told that if  the SUNY leader wanted to “stay on the team” he had to retain Howe, a longtime associate of Cuomo, to be the “eyes and ears” of the governor’s office, Doyle testified.

Howe was not an employee of SUNY, but was retained as a consultant. Still, Doyle said, he viewed Howe as one of his supervisors and Howe regularly assigned him tasks. “He certainly was connected with the governor’s office,’’ Doyle said of Howe.

Howe was the star witness in the corruption trial earlier this year of longtime Cuomo insider Joseph Percoco, who was convicted in a bribery scheme.

* Kaloyeros and Howe grew increasingly upset by articles written on the Buffalo Billion project by Jim Heaney, the editor of a Buffalo journalism group called Investigative Post. Defense lawyers successfully got redacted portions of some of Heaney’s articles that prosecutors introduced as evidence Wednesday, but emails produced during Doyle’s testimony showed Kaloyeros and Howe responding internally with sarcasm and biting commentary when Heaney’s articles were published online.

Doyle added that Howe lashed out at one particular Heaney article. Asked what Howe meant by that, Doyle said Howe began an effort to try to get people to stop donating to support Investigative Post’s work at his nonprofit group. Heaney is a former Buffalo News reporter.

* SUNY Polytechnic engaged in a campaign of deflection and denial when it was asked by outlets, including The Buffalo News and Newsday, about the Buffalo Billion RFP process, including details about the original RFP issued in the fall of 2013 stating that corporate bidders had to be in business a minimum of 50 years. Prosecutors have said that was done to help LPCiminelli win the deal.

SUNY officials a couple weeks after the RFP was issued in October 2013 called it a typographical error and changed the wording to 15 years.

Doyle referred one Buffalo News request for information to Kaloyeros and Howe, and told them both he didn’t want to respond. Why, prosecutor Robert L. Boone asked? “I was a little shell-shocked … There was a lot of incoming,’’ Doyle said of the media requests coming in over the RFP process in the late summer and early fall of 2015.

Ciminelli, Kaloyeros and two Syracuse developers on trial with them – Gerardi and Steven Aiello of COR Development – have maintained their innocence and said no rules or laws were violated in the awarding of the Buffalo Billion deal and one in central New York.

Kaloyeros’ lawyer, Michael C. Miller, and Ciminelli lawyer Paul Shechtman, the state’s former criminal justice czar during the Pataki administration in the 1990s, pushed back against much of the evidence and testimony Wednesday.

Caproni indicated Wednesday night that she is prepared to put off jury summations by prosecution and defense lawyers until July 9 – assuming both sides wrap up their cases sometime Thursday. Next week's trial schedule was already set to be limited to Monday and Tuesday; lawyers previously indicated a reluctance to having to give their closing arguments to the jury early next week in advance of a five-day break for the July 4 holiday.

Also, a defense lawyer's suggestion earlier this week that Howe could be called to testify in the Buffalo Billion trial appeared to fall off the table during a Wednesday night conference Caproni held with the attorneys in her Manhattan courtroom.

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