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Prosecutors want Ciminelli to hand back Buffalo Billion profits

Prosecutors don't want to stop at just locking up Buffalo businessman Louis P. Ciminelli in federal prison for a number of years. They want the government to grab back the money his company made off the Buffalo Billion, too.

Ciminelli will be sentenced in federal court in Manhattan on Monday for his role in a bid-rigging scheme that steered state money to his company, LPCiminelli. And if prosecutors get their way, he'll face a stiff sentence that includes returning a substantial share of the millions LPCiminelli collected to build the Buffalo Billion RiverBend project that now houses a Tesla plant.

It's unclear, though, how much money Ciminelli's company would have to forfeit. In court papers filed on Friday, prosecutors said Ciminelli's gross profit off the deal was $26.25 million – but that was before operating costs.

"The actual proceeds here that went to Lou Ciminelli are far, far lower," Ciminelli's lawyer, Paul L. Shechtman, said in a phone interview Sunday.

Prosecutors only want Ciminelli to forfeit his net profits – which, unlike the gross profits, never were revealed in his trial.

Shechtman said he didn't know exactly what Ciminelli's net profits from the project were, but he acknowledged the amount of money the government wants to claw back would certainly be in excess of $1 million.

In their letter to U.S. District Court Judge Valerie E. Caproni on Friday, prosecutors said they would also seek the net profits earned by Syracuse developers Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi in separate deals with the state in central New York.

"The government does not dispute that the three defendants should be required to forfeit only their net proceeds," Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote in his letter to the judge.

Berman said his office reached out last week to lawyers for Ciminelli, Aiello and Gerardi to tell them that prosecutors wanted the developers to hand over the money they received in the scheme, which resulted in the conviction of all three men on fraud and conspiracy charges in July.

Louis P. Ciminelli, shown after being sentenced to prison, gave generously to local and state politicians over the years. Some of the recipients have made a point of giving the money to charities. Others don't intend to do so. (Jefferson Siegel/Special to The News)

Prosecutors previously said they would seek forfeiture of profits from other defendants in the Buffalo Billion cases, such as former state aide Joseph Percoco, who were convicted before Ciminelli.

"The government has been consistent in its efforts to seek forfeiture from defendants in this case who personally obtained ill-gotten proceeds from their crimes," Berman wrote.

Shechtman said he planned to challenge the prosecutors' request that Ciminelli forfeit his profits.

"Whether these funds are eligible for forfeiture is an open question," he said.

Prosecutors asked Caproni to issue a "general order of forfeiture." The court would determine the exact amount of money that Ciminelli would have to give up at a later date.

The government's request that Ciminelli give up his profits adds another twist to his sentencing hearing Monday afternoon.

Previously, Ciminelli's sentencing seemed to be a battle between prosecutors – who were seeking "a substantial term of imprisonment" of several years – and the developer's many friends and allies in Buffalo who argued for a reduced sentence.

Shechtman weighed in last week with a plea for leniency based on three factors: what he called the weakness of the prosecutors' case, all the good Ciminelli has done in his hometown and the dire prognosis he faces as he battles a cancer that's expected to take his life in no more than eight years.

Members of the Buffalo community continued to weigh in on the case last week – including Jeanne Burke, who used to walk Ciminelli's dogs, Abby and Minnie, who have since passed away.

"A man's heart and soul are easily seen through a dog's adoring eyes," Burke said in a handwritten plea for leniency that included a photograph of the two dogs staring out a window.

Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino offered a decidedly different take on Ciminelli, though, in an email to the judge on Friday. When he was on the city School Board, Paladino had pressed for an accounting of how much LPCiminelli had made on the $1.3 billion schools renovation project.

Arguing that Ciminelli deserves anything but leniency, Paladino said: "Don’t believe any of the letters or news comments about what a great guy he is. His life has been all about greed."

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