NEW YORK — A federal judge recently sentenced a Buffalo developer to 28 months behind bars and ordered him to pay a $500,000 fine in a bid-rigging scheme connected to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” economic redevelopment program.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni suspended the prison term while Louis Ciminelli appeals his conviction.
Ciminelli, 63, was found guilty with three others over the summer in a pay-to-play conspiracy in which his firm won a development job worth a half billion dollars. Prosecutors called the scheme an “enormous fraud” and said it involved state-funded contracts worth more than $850 million.
Ciminelli and others in his company contributed nearly $100,000 to Cuomo’s campaign, prosecutors said. The Democratic governor was not accused of wrongdoing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky asked Caproni not to allow Ciminelli the chance to “buy his way out of prison” by pointing to his years of philanthropy in Buffalo. Rather, he asked the judge to send the message that “everyone has to play by the same rules” when bidding on state contracts, irrespective of which lobbyists they know and which connections they have.
Caproni credited Ciminelli for his generous giving and said she had taken into account the developer’s recent diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. But she also scolded Ciminelli for obstructing the federal investigation by deleting a critical email after he heard the footsteps of the FBI.
“I hope this sentence will be heard around the state,” the judge said.
While Caproni warned of the far-reaching – and nonmonetary – consequences of corruption, she also seemed skeptical of some portions of the government’s case, which Ciminelli’s defence attorney had assailed as weak. She noted the developer would have faced a significantly harsher sentence had federal prosecutors managed to put a more precise price tag on the loss to taxpayers.
Caproni said the case left her and others to wonder what other economic development projects Ciminelli’s construction firm might have won by “cheating.”
Ciminelli, who has maintained his innocence, told the judge he intends to keep fighting to clear his name.
His defence attorney, Paul Shechtman, argued Ciminelli already has suffered the loss of his company and his previously “unblemished reputation.” Outside the Manhattan courthouse, Shechtman told reporters he was pleased his client had been released while a federal appeals court decides “what (Caproni) acknowledged are substantial legal issues.”
“Particularly in political corruption cases, she’s a strong minded judge,” he said of Caproni, “so I take great solace in that on what is otherwise a very difficult day.”
The jury that found Ciminelli guilty also convicted two other developers and one of Cuomo’s top economic development advisers, former State University of New York Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros.
Kaloyeros is scheduled for sentencing next week.