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Defense on star witness in Buffalo Billion trial: 'He had to sing for his supper'

NEW YORK – Defense lawyer Paul Shechtman says there is one thing he and prosecutors in the Buffalo Billion trial can agree on – Kevin Schuler's testimony was clear and irrefutable.

Well, almost.

Using Schuler's own words, testimony from his time on the witness stand, Shechtman suggested Tuesday that the former LPCiminelli executive was more of a witness for his client, Louis Ciminelli, than he was for the prosecution.

The one exception, he told the jury, was Schuler's contention that Ciminelli and co-defendant Alain Kaloyeros were part of an illegal effort to steer a $750 million construction contract to Ciminelli's company.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that was his only untruth," Shechtman said. "He had to sing for his supper and I submit Lou Ciminelli was his song."

Describing him as the "government's star witness," Shechtman said he thinks Schuler took a plea deal and agreed to cooperate because he feared going to prison and being separated from his wife and young children.

In his closing argument, the defense attorney referred over and over again to Schuler's testimony, which he described as credible at times – and conflicting at times.

He acknowledged Schuler's finger-pointing, but also reminded the jury of his many statements in support of his former boss.

Using the phrase, "No Lou" repeatedly, Shechtman tried to distance his client from the conspiracy and fraud allegations, and he did it by using Schuler's own words during his cross-examination two weeks ago.

"Did Louis Ciminelli ever ask you to do anything to rig the Buffalo RFP in LPCiminelli's favor?" Shechtman asked him at one point during his testimony.

"Nothing that comes to mind," Schuler said. "Take a specific action? No."

At that point during his testimony, Shechtman asked Schuler to look at the Buffalo request for proposals.

"If I asked you to look through that and tell me what provision in there Lou Ciminelli had any role in shaping in favor of his company, could you find one?" he asked.

"I don't believe so," Schuler answered.

Shechtman's closing argument came as the federal court trial here – a trial that has cast a spotlight on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Buffalo Billion – winds down.

Given one last chance to sway the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Boone Tuesday challenged Shechtman's claim there was no concrete evidence of Ciminelli's guilt.

He pointed to Kaloyeros' email, well before the Buffalo Billion project became public, in which he asked for more background on LPCiminelli.

At the time, Kaloyeros, a scientist and president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, was in charge of Cuomo's Buffalo Billion.

"These are not unique to Lou's company," Kaloyeros said in the message. "We need more definite specs."

One of the details Kaloyeros asked for was LPCiminelli's years of experience in construction, a request that resulted in Schuler sending him a company brochure indicating the company had been in business for 50 years.

"What happens next?" Boone asked. "It's in the RFP."

Boone acknowledged the 50-year requirement, which the defense claimed was a simple typo, was eventually removed.

"It happened," he said. "It doesn't matter that it was deleted."

Early in their summations Tuesday, the defense attacked the government's case, calling it "outrageous" and "revisionist" and full of significant gaps.

Stephen Coffey, a lawyer for Syracuse developer Steven Aiello, a co-defendant, who described the government's case in those terms, reminded the jury that the trial is being held in the Daniel P. Moynihan courthouse and that the former New York senator is still remembered for his famous quote, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts."

"The government has developed and devised its own facts," Coffey said Tuesday. "If this weren't so serious, it would be laughable."

At one point, Coffey looked at the jury and suggested they ask themselves some serious questions.

"Have you been duped?" he asked them and, referring to the government, added, "They're deceiving you of material information."

Defense lawyer Milton Williams joined in the assault – and asked the jury to weigh why Todd Howe, a former government witness, did not testify.

Howe and Schuler have both admitted taking part in a bid-rigging scheme and are now cooperating with the government.

Unlike Schuler, however, Howe did not testify at the trial. He is in jail facing allegations that he violated his cooperation agreement by fraudulently seeking a reduction in a hotel bill. He has a prior criminal record.

"He's a liar. He's a scoundrel," Williams told the jury. "I'm submitting to you that the government didn't call Todd Howe because they know he's a liar, too."

Williams said Howe, a former Cuomo associate, was in the "middle of everything" and was conspicuous by his absence on the witness stand.

The defense asked the jury to consider why others involved in the Buffalo Billion selection process were never named as co-conspirators, suggesting the government was selective in who it chose to prosecute.

Coffey repeatedly mentioned Dean Fuleihan, former chairman of the board that approved the Buffalo and Syracuse projects at the heart of the case. Like Kaloyeros, Fuleihan, who is now first deputy mayor of New York City, was involved in pre-RFP discussions with Aiello and COR Development of Syracuse.

Ciminelli's defense team also joined in the criticism of the government's case.

Shechtman specifically mentioned exhibits indicating LPCiminelli was picked to build a new solar manufacturing plant in Buffalo because the company scored higher in a rating system developed by the board overseeing the project.

"Not showing you those exhibits hides the ball, hides the truth," he told the jury. "LPCiminelli won on the merits."

The case before U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni is expected to go to the jury Wednesday.

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