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After a lifetime of building and giving, Louis Ciminelli awaits a reckoning

Lou Ciminelli wasn’t going to let this go.

It was the early 1990s, lunchtime at the stately Buffalo Club. Larry Quinn, a real-estate developer who was overseeing the construction of the downtown sports arena now known as KeyBank Center, was having lunch with Ciminelli’s father, Frank. Louis, who as Frank’s oldest son was the heir apparent to the family’s construction business, was there, too.

For Quinn, this was a courtesy lunch to let the Ciminellis know why he was awarding the lucrative construction-manager contract to an Indianapolis firm with more experience in large-scale projects.

Frank Ciminelli, a self-made millionaire with blue-collar roots who began his company four decades earlier by pouring concrete, erupted. “He got really angry and started screaming at me,” recalled Quinn, who excused himself from the table and left the dining room.

Louis Ciminelli followed Quinn down the stairs. He masked whatever anger or disappointment he felt and conveyed an executive’s sense of calmness and cool. “Lou caught up with me and said, ‘Well, we want to be considered for that work,’ ” Quinn recalled.

A jury convicted developer Louis P. Ciminelli of fraud and conspiracy charges. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

For Frank Ciminelli, losing the contract was an insult. For Lou Ciminelli, it was simply an obstacle. There was still money to be made on this project.

In the decades that followed, as Louis P. Ciminelli bought his father’s business, renamed it LPCiminelli, and expanded it exponentially, he became increasingly effective at surmounting, averting and eliminating obstacles. Too effective, in the view of a jury, which last July found Ciminelli guilty in federal court of a bid-rigging scheme for Buffalo’s RiverBend project, which was part of the state’s Buffalo Billion initiative.

Government prosecutors successfully argued that Ciminelli conspired to set criteria for the job that only his company could meet. When he is sentenced Wednesday, Nov. 28, in Manhattan, he will stand in court as a man who has lost much: His company has crumbled. His health has deteriorated. Dozen of friends, family and powerful colleagues have pleaded with the judge for leniency.

What happened at that early '90s lunch at The Buffalo Club provides insight into how Louis Ciminelli became who he is. His first move was to salvage the relationship. The company ended up bidding on – and winning – concrete flooring jobs and other general contracting work on the arena. Quinn, speaking to The Buffalo News this month, recalled the value of that work to be in the range of $8 million to $9 million.

Years later, Ciminelli again worked for Quinn on the Hauptman Woodward Medical Research Institute in Buffalo. After that, they crossed paths in the midst of controversy over Ciminelli’s work on the $1.3 billion reconstruction of Buffalo’s public schools. Quinn, who became a member of the Buffalo School Board in 2014, and his board colleague Carl Paladino demanded an accounting of the decade-long schools project: How were the funds spent? How much of it was pure profit? LPCiminelli didn’t provide the answers to Quinn and other critics’ satisfaction.

Meanwhile, LPCiminelli’s revenues soared. In 2005, at the outset of the schools project, the company’s revenues were $190 million. By 2016, the same year Lou Ciminelli was arrested, that number was $715 million. In the same time-frame, the company’s employee count grew from 160 to 245.

LPCiminelli revenue grew as it took on more public and private projects. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

As Ciminelli grew wealthier through work on projects like the Buffalo Joint Schools Construction and Buffalo Billion, he spent and gave millions, too. He bought a $2.2 million home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a $2.1 million property in Napa Valley, Calif., along with a New York City apartment. Ciminelli and his family members made more than $100,000 in campaign contributions to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In 2013, while bidding was in process for the Buffalo Billion, Ciminelli hosted a fundraiser in his Buffalo home that raised more than $250,000 for Cuomo.

Through his Louis P. Ciminelli Family Foundation, he has donated millions to Western New York charities. His foundation’s 2016 IRS filing lists $815,237 in gifts and endowments from that year alone. That includes nearly $230,000 to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; $200,000 to the University at Buffalo Foundation; $150,000 to the Buffalo State Foundation; and $125,000 to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

In her letter to the federal judge who will sentence Ciminelli this week, LPCiminelli’s chief financial officer, Amy Clifton, wrote, “Over my 13-year tenure, Louis has given and pledged over $15 million to nonprofit organizations.” Giving, she said, was “the one category that was consistently over budget.”

Critics point out that Ciminelli’s giving was largely focused on highbrow, A-list charities – a symphony orchestra, an art gallery – and many wished the company would have done more for the oft-blighted neighborhoods surrounding the schools the company profited from rebuilding. But Ciminelli and his company also supported organizations including Say Yes Buffalo, which supports Buffalo students, and Buffalo Prep, a college-preparatory program for city students.

Those critics are largely reluctant to speak out now – “I don’t want to kick him while he’s down,” one said – and point out that the justice system is levying a more lasting judgment than one individual’s words can do.

Ciminelli's lawyer declined to make him available for an interview for this story, citing the impending sentencing. Several other people in Ciminelli's circles declined full on-the-record interviews as well. But multiple people and public documents offer insights, stories and observations spanning Ciminelli's career and life.

Nobody who spoke with the News for this story disputes this: Whatever his intentions and preferred causes, Ciminelli’s giving has made a tangible difference in Buffalo. He strengthened, even saved, the Philharmonic from financial ruin, to name one example. On the business side, his construction work is largely regarded as well-done. “I’ve always been happy with their work,” Quinn said, “and I think he always had good people.”

If he was doing good work, and doing good with his money, then how did Lou Ciminelli end up in this place?

The ‘Tyger’

One person contacted for this story, who has known Ciminelli closely for decades, declined to speak on the record, but said, “There’s a poem out there called ‘The Tyger,’ by William Blake.” Read it, this person suggested, to get a sense of what made Lou Ciminelli the person he is.

Ciminelli has average stature, bald head and glasses, but the tiger metaphor frames him still: He tends toward the solitary, and has carved out his own space in the construction business even as multiple members of his family worked in related areas. (His brother Paul, for example, runs Ciminelli Real Estate, a separate company.)

Though many people consider Ciminelli to be shy (if they like him) or aloof (if they don’t), others say he is a fiercely territorial, competitive businessman. It’s a dynamic stoked by a complicated relationship with his father and the desire to set himself apart.

A concert hall at SUNY Buffalo State bears the name of Louis P. Ciminelli. (Robert Kirkham / News file photo)

Born in 1955, Louis is the eldest of Frank and Rosalie Ciminelli’s six children. He spent his earliest years living in Buffalo, and by the time Louis was a teenager, the family was living on a four-acre homestead in Clarence.

Family and family dinner were priorities in the Ciminelli household. “We always waited for Frank and he usually was home by around 6:30, but the kids were impatient because a lot of their friends ate dinner at 5:30,” Rosalie told author Dick Hirsch in the book “A Concrete Foundation: The Ciminelli Story.”

There was one exception, she told Hirsch. On Tuesday, when Frank held later meetings at work, the rest of the family ordered out for pizza and wings.

Louis was an active member of Clarence High School’s class of 1973, serving as a class officer during his senior year. His life changed starkly after graduation. Ciminelli’s high school classmate, Karen Stollsteimer, gave birth to their first child, Frank II, in March 1974, near the end of Louis’ freshman year of college at Clarkson University in Potsdam. At his father's urging, Louis came home to Buffalo, where he married Karen and went to work full time in the family business.

The Ciminelli company was working in both development and construction, though Louis had a preference for the latter, which had better cash flow and quicker rewards. By 1984, he broke away to start his own company, Paragon Northeast Corp.

“(Lou Ciminelli) didn’t want to work for his dad anymore,” said Dick Hirsch, whose book was written with the cooperation of Frank Ciminelli and published three years before the developer’s December 2014 death at age 80.

“He wanted to be his own guy, and I think that says a lot about him,” said Hirsch, who was interviewed by the News in 2016, shortly after Louis Ciminelli's arrest. “He could have stayed, and it was a proven business, but he was motivated to do other things. He wanted to take command of his life, his career, leave the comforts of the family business.”

Ciminelli spent the next few years doing sewage plant and demolition work in New York and surrounding states. In 1985 he divorced Karen, with whom he had three children: Frank II, Christina, and Matthew. The elder Frank Ciminelli, meanwhile, hoped to bring his son back into the family business. In 1987, they worked out an arrangement: Louis came back, assumed the role of president of Frank L. Ciminelli Construction Inc., and agreed on a plan to buy the company outright in 10 years.

Multiple sources close to the family have confirmed that Frank and Lou Ciminelli had a complicated, often fraught relationship, marked by long periods of silence, or tension, or both. Those sources declined to speak on record, often citing the sensitivity of the situation, and the pain the Ciminelli family is experiencing as the sentencing date nears.

But this is clear: When Lou Ciminelli took control of the family company, he rebranded it “LPCiminelli” to reflect his own initials.

This company was his.

A company, and a man, broken

Ciminelli built both his company and himself into what seemed to be unquestionable successes. LPCiminelli’s lucrative work spanned Buffalo to China, and Louis became a prominent business figure, serving as the chair of several entities, including the New York Power Authority.

He has a strong cadre of supporters even now; many of them wrote letters of support that were sent earlier this month to Valerie Caproni, the federal judge who will be sentencing him.

Current and former employees from LPCiminelli, which has crumbled in the two years since Lou’s arrest and has only a handful of workers remaining, cast him as a caring boss who willingly covered costs for employees who hit tough times. Grateful beneficiaries of his charitable dollars laud his character.

Multiple writers to Caproni asked for leniency because of Ciminelli’s health. In 2017, he underwent chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant to treat multiple myeloma, a plasma-cell cancer that is not curable. Life expectancy for myeloma patients ranges from two years to eight years; Ciminelli's doctor “puts him at the high end of that low range,” wrote his lawyer.

Among the letter writers were Ciminelli's wife Ann Louise, whom he married in 1995, and three of his four children: Frank II, who runs a new company, Arc Building Partners, and Nina and Matt. His fourth child, Alexis Asquith, who was born in 1990 between his two marriages, was not among the writers. But when reached via email by the News, she wrote back, “Simply put, I love my father.”

Ciminelli’s daughter, Nina, wrote to the judge that her father recently told her, “Every day I find something to be optimistic about.”

Matt Ciminelli, Lou’s youngest son, told the judge his dad taught him, “You’re only as good as your last project.”

But if Louis Ciminelli really believes that, where did he go wrong? Why is he facing the possibility of prison?

He’ll be sentenced this week for fraud and conspiracy charges related to rigging a request for proposal, or RFP, for Buffalo’s RiverBend project with criteria that ensured LPCiminelli would win the $750 million job. Among the criteria in the 2013 RFP: Bidders were required to have been doing construction work in the Buffalo region for 50 years.

Ciminelli was convicted in July with Alain Kaloyeros, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo put in charge of overseeing his Buffalo Billion efforts. Ciminelli has consistently refuted the charges and plans to appeal.

Officials, including Alain E. Kaloyeros, ceremoniously broke ground on a state-funded factory in South Buffalo in 2014. Kaloyeros was convicted in a federal trial earlier this year. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

People close to him have speculated that the turning point for Ciminelli came during his company’s decade of work on the rehabilitation of 48 Buffalo schools. The 2002 deal for the Joint Schools Construction Project gave LPCiminelli control over every aspect of the construction in exchange for a fixed rate. The project’s original $1 billion price tag later jumped to $1.3 billion due to changes in the plans.

The work was completed on time and for the agreed-to costs, but Quinn and his then-fellow board member, developer Carl Paladino, demanded a breakdown of how LPCiminelli spent the money and how much was profit. A 2015 review by The Buffalo News found public records left hundreds of millions of dollars undocumented. The company refused to release records to show how much money it did make.

The district withheld its final payment and sued LPCiminelli for those records, but was unsuccessful. Only last month did the school board and the company come to an agreement for LPCiminelli to receive its final $3.1 million payment.

“It’s amazing to me that a contractor who worked for the School Board, who put us through three years of litigation, and they would not tell us how they spent our money,” Quinn told the News. He was speaking strictly about the school reconstruction project, which is legally unrelated to the RiverBend bid-rigging for which Ciminelli was convicted.

But people close to Ciminelli – some of whom say they like, or even love, him – see a carryover: He became a man passionate for money, power and influence. He did good things with that wealth, but perhaps forgot that what you do with your money is not the only thing that matters.

How you make it counts, too.

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