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May 27 - JUNE 03, 2014

Cuomo Minions Silent on Hamister Deal, Other Projects

By Tony Farina

May 27, 2014

The City-owned lot where the Hamister hotel is to be built.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a reported $35 million campaign war chest for his re-election bid this year and last week selected Buffalo's Kathy Hochul to run for lieutenant governor under the Cuomo umbrella, a choice Cuomo hopes will help deliver him a big win in Western New York where he fared so poorly last time against Carl Paladino.

But if I were counseling the Republican candidate for governor, Rob Astorino, I would advise him to focus on the lack of transparency in the Cuomo administration where news about what the governor is doing comes in tightly-scripted press events and the media, representing the public, has little chance to go behind the balloons and whistles and find out the details of how the public's money is being spent.

There are very few leaks in the Cuomo ship of state, and his minions know he won't tolerate unauthorized leaks to the wrong media outlets and they dutifully follow the script or risk losing their high-paying state jobs and big pensions.

There is no better evidence of this pattern than in Buffalo and Niagara Falls where Empire State Development and its subsidiary, USA Niagara, won't even respond to press enquiries about the much-hyped, taxpayer subsidized, Hamister hotel project on prime city property in Niagara Falls.

The local political appointees who head these two agencies are Sam Hoyt at Empire State and Chris Schoepflin at USA Niagara. Hoyt is a former state assemblyman who earns a $140,000-plus salary tooting the governor's horn, and Schoepflin is another $100,000-plus tout for the administration.

You can easily add Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster to the list of guardians of the governor's public relations effort as none of the above figures will provide any information on what's going on with one of the most hyped public/private projects in recent local history, the $25.3 million mixed-use Hamister hotel project that was given the state's blessing last July and won a bitter battle with the Niagara Falls City Council to move forward after last November's elections thanks to a big push from the governor (before the election) and, according to Hoyt, his lobbying efforts with the council.

But trying to get an update on the $2.75 million publicly subsidized project is like trying to pull teeth on a tiger, only much harder.

There was a bit of news last week on the project that Dyster said will turn the corner on downtown development when the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a parking variance to Hamister ( 4 – 1) that will give Hamister 75 parking spaces in the Rainbow Centre ramp at $40 per space, or $3,000 a month.

The parking provision was part of the deal with Hamister, along with the virtual gift of the Rainbow Blvd. parcel for $100,000, but efforts to reach the city corporation counsel or USA Niagara and Empire State officials about where the project stands proved unsuccessful even though Hamister's surrogates say it is on schedule.

Zoning Board member Vincent Spadorcia voted against the parking variance for the falls savior (Hamister), saying he still has serious doubts about the project and wonders why there have been no shovels in the ground as yet despite all the hoopla about the necessity to get the deal approved or else, a do-or-die scenario painted by the mayor and the Cuomo minions before last year's city elections that resulted in Sam Fruscione, who dared questioned the deal, losing his seat.

Hamister's attorneys have an agreement with the city and the state that has more exit strategies for the developer than can be counted on the legs of a centipede. And none of them cost the Hamister group any money. But there's little hope of getting any answers on the big lift taxpayers are being asked to provide from any of the government agencies or principles who rammed it through without any financial commitment from Hamister on the table.

One has to wonder about the transparency of Empire State Development, the governor's chief economic development agency, and USA Niagara, the subsidiary which has issued a mere six press releases since last July dating to the big one on Hamister.

That lack of transparency can be seen elsewhere, including Canalside in Buffalo where a dispute with an ousted contractor on the signature replica canals project could wind up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Empire State is paying hefty legal fees to a politically-favored law firm and won't say a word about the mess, especially in this, an election year.

Hoyt and Schoepflin are living quite nicely on their public salaries at the development agencies but don't dare ask them how they are spending all that money at their disposal to make Cuomo look good and keep the truth from the public. And Dyster, known to keep a tight ship himself, is apparently enjoying the ride keeping taxpayers in the dark.

When Cuomo's press people do make their "unauthorized" leaks to favored outlets, it is to ensure they will get maximum coverage for the governor when he rides into town and takes credit for everything but the rising sun. It has worked well for the governor but do taxpayers really know about the secret deals that have been made, like the Maid of the Mist $100 million giveaway contract to Jimmy Glynn over a potential competitor, or the arrangements to float political contributor Hamister's project on the backs of taxpayers.

If you read this, Rob Astorino, maybe you should question the secrecy in the Cuomo administration and the back room deals that are all over the place, starting right here in Buffalo Billion territory. The lack of transparency and public accountability is shameful, and Assemblyman Michael Kearns (D.- Buffalo) should be given credit for pushing Cuomo to have the new stadium committee come out from behind closed doors and meet in public.

Since the state is operating with money it collects from taxpayers, shouldn't the public be entitled to know what's going on? Should the public trust political slugs like Hoyt and Schoepflin to spend their money in the dark without any accountability?

We wrote last week about the average $26,000 student debt that graduates carry with them with their diplomas, and about the explosion in the salaries of the executives at public universities that seem to know no bounds. State lawmakers should start earning their salaries by questioning the governor's lack of transparency, even if it risks retribution from Cuomo who does not take well to criticism. But he is an elected public official, and he should be held accountable for the public money his agencies spend.

We hope that Hamister finds a tenant (he should have had one at the beginning), but given his track record from 10 years ago when he backed out of his bid to buy the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres, there is cause for suspicion, especially since nobody is willing to talk about his project even though it is being sponsored by the taxpayers.

The louder the silence, the more cause for suspicion.

Mark Hamister and Gov. Andrew Cuomo make a deal.






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