Pay-to-Play Scheme? PAC Supporting Restaino Allegedly Connected to Niagara Falls Water Board

By Ken Cosentino

Several days ago, the Niagara Falls Reporter published a bombshell article about Nick Forster’s Niagara Falls Water Board (NFWB). The article was a deep dive into questionable spending, hiring practices, alleged micro-managing practices by Forster, and potential connections to Mayor Robert Restaino’s re-election campaign.

Since publication, several readers have reached out to the Reporter to voice their disdain. Ratepayers have said that they demand a refund on their water bill. Some have suggested a class action lawsuit.

During the investigation, the Reporter interviewed four current and former employees of NFWB who wished to remain anonymous out of “fear of retribution from Nick Forster.”

Nick Forster is the Chairman of the NFWB. After being removed from the board by the Niagara Falls City Council, Forster was re-appointed by Mayor Restaino. Sometime later he was elected Chairman of the Board by his fellow board members. Several sources have alleged that some board members were bullied and intimidated into electing Forster as Chairman, or face termination.

The Reporter interviewed Nick Forster about a laundry list of allegations brought forth by current and former employees of NFWB.

Says Forster, “I consider these allegations hearsay. You know as well as I do that ‘hearsay’ is an interesting word, where one person can say something anonymously without any… it could be factual, it could not be. I like the facts.”

First up is the allegation made by NFWB Insider #3, a former executive who alleged that the Political Action Committee (PAC) “Democrats Building Bridges,” which is run by Forster, is involved in alleged illegal activity.

NFWB Insider #3 alleges that some vendors associated with the NFWB have purchased tickets to the PAC’s fundraisers (some costing $500 per plate), and later added the donation amount to work orders; meaning the vendor is allegedly reimbursed by ratepayer dollars.

When questioned about this allegation, Nick Forster remained curiously silent and did not respond.

The Reporter interviewed a local political operative who preferred to remain anonymous. The operative alleged, “It’s 100% a pay to play scenario there. Vendors have to pay, or they’ll lose their contracts at NFWB. PACs raise money, they can accept an unlimited amount. Look at the filings for his PAC. Look at the names of the organizations that gave donations. Many of them have been or are currently businesses associated with the NFWB. He’s raising money for the mayor. That’s his main prerogative.”

Forster refutes this, saying “I don’t put on fundraisers for the mayor, that is incorrect. I have fundraisers and political people attend. [Restaino] happened to be at the event on the 21st, he was a special guest just like it said on the ticket.”

While the PAC may not be contributing money directly to Restaino’s campaign, Forster is mincing words. Democrats Building Bridges has paid for advertisements such as the attack video on Glenn Choolokian, in support of Restaino’s campaign.

Regarding the PAC, Forster added, “Democrats Building Bridges is not my PAC; you’re reporting it as my PAC. It’s PAC. It’s a PAC that I used when I was County Chairman and it stayed in existence. The PAC was created, I don’t know by whom… I couldn’t tell you how old it is, but it’s old.”

Nick Forster denies this association with Democrats Building Bridges PAC, despite the fact that he is Chairman for the PAC.

Another PAC, this one called “Mayor Restaino and a Brighter Future for Niagara Falls,” put on events which were co-chaired by Forster. Sources have alleged that this is a way to move so-called “dark money” around, and for people to overfund Restaino’s campaign through alleged illicit means.

There is a link between NFWB employees/vendors and contributors to the PAC. For example: Constance Hoyt, wife of former disgraced Cuomo operative Sam Hoyt, is a contributor. Sam Hoyt is a lobbyist for NFWB. PAC treasurer and contributor Darryl DiNoto is a NFWB employee. Also contributing to the PAC is NYS Assemblyman Angelo Morinello.

PAC contributor Margaret Toohey is the wife of Tim Toohey, a NFWB contracted consultant who was previously convicted of receiving money stolen from the Seneca Nation of Indians and filing a false tax return. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

These are just a few examples of PAC contributors who are associated with the NFWB.

When questioned about the allegations of “perks given to friends and family members who work at NFWB,” Nick Forster said, “I have one family member that works there, Erika Schroeder was hired five years ago. She doesn’t have a car or cellphone. Where’s the proof? There isn’t any and I tend to believe based on that statement alone that it’s all a bunch of hogwash.”

Nick Forster said that the reason this barrage of allegations has emerged from NFWB employees is due to the fact that we are currently in what he calls “silly season,” or election season.

“Quite frankly, I’ve been friends with the Restaino family for decades. I was friends with his dad,” says Forster of his relationship with Mayor Robert Restaino.

The Reporter asked former longtime Democratic County Chairman Nick Forster about the allegations that a Republican employee of NFWB was passing petitions for Mayor Restaino, which were then signed and notarized by his niece as witness. Forster responded, “When was this? This year? Uh huh. You’re asking me to comment on something that I’m completely unaware of.”

Regarding allegations that Nick Forster was allowing temporary employees to remain employed without passing civil service exams, Forster replied, “I believe that’s an HR function. I would suspect that there’s probably numerous positions that are being occupied where an employee is sitting in a provisional position because civil service has not offered to test.”

Forster went on to blame COVID for the lack of testing.

Says Forster, “The state is always behind on certain things, and with two years going through COVID, testing wasn’t performed as it normally is. They weren’t getting people in congregations in a room to test. That isn’t in my area of oversight at all. It’s HR and civil service that expands to the state. Yep… yep… yup… yup… yup.”

One thing that everyone has agreed upon is that Nick Forster micromanages daily operations at NFWB.

NFWB Insider #4 alleged, “I don’t understand how a man can have so much power. Forster walks around the Water Board, he shouldn’t be talking to the employees. Board members were never allowed to talk to the employees before, but he changed that. He uses employees to get information. He had no power until Restaino put him back in. He was fired.”

All four NFWB insiders said that it’s “impossible to get any work done” with Forster constantly micromanaging everyone and everything. Too bad Forster hasn’t micromanaged the reparation of potholes surrounding manhole covers on our city streets, which is a responsibility of NFWB. Ultimately, the city has mismanaged the process of how this gets reported to the NFWB.

When asked if the Executive Director of the NFWB, Dr. Abderrahman Zehraoui (hired by Forster) ever drove a NFWB truck to and from East Chicago, Indiana, Forster stated, “No. Absolutely not.”

One allegation made by a NFWB insider is that Nick Forster is allegedly performing non-stop construction in-house, most of it unnecessary. Forster responded, “Have ‘I’ been doing construction? The answer is no. Has there been reconstruction and remodeling in both plants? The answer is yes.”

One of the more heinous allegations made against Forster involves the fact that residents of the City of Niagara Falls, NY pay an exorbitantly high water bill in comparison to neighboring municipalities. Every NFWB insider alleged that our insanely high bills are the result of Forster’s non-stop construction and alleged hiring of friends and family. NFWB Insider #3 stated that there’s an estimated amount of $1.5 million of “useless payroll” at the NFWB.

Forster responded to these allegations, saying “In 2002 the City of Niagara Falls decided, through state legislation, to create the Niagara Falls Water Board. When they did that, they transferred $110 million in debt from the City of Niagara Falls and gave it to the Niagara Falls Water Board. The day the Water Board was created there was $110 million of purchases on the credit card already. So that’s what we call our debt service. It wasn’t anything that the Water Board did, it was inherited.”

In regards to the “$1.5 million of useless payroll,” Forster said, “Really? Well, there must be some people I don’t like. One of the reasons our water sewer rates are so high is because of the debt service. That’s one reason. Another reason is that our plant is antiquated.” Sewer rates account for more than half of our water bills.

Forster continued, “The big difference between the Niagara County Sewer District and NFWB is what we inherited. Our budget is about $40 million per year. Raising the rates one percent is equivalent to $300,000.”

The Reporter also interviewed Dan O’Callaghan, who was Chairman of the NFWB prior to Forster’s appointment. Mayor Restaino fired O’Callaghan before re-appointing Forster to the board.

Says O’Callaghan, “The Water Board did absorb the city debt. However, the water bill wasn’t that high; but during Forster’s time as Chairman – it’s gone up 30% in just three years. The three years I was Chairman, it went up maybe 2%. We held the line. We had something like $32 million in a ‘rainy day’ fund.”

According to the numbers Forster provided, the 30% increase equates to $9 million over the last three years, which has fallen directly onto the taxpayers’ backs.

Says Forster, “It costs the ratepayers a shit ton of fucking money to operate this plant because we have to use so many chemicals. One of the biggest chemicals we use is hypochlorite, which is a fancy name for chlorine. In 2017 we were paying 48 cents by the gallon, that’s how it’s bid. Today we’re paying $2.17. There were days last year that we used 33,000 gallons of chlorine in a 24 hour period. So 33,000 times $2.17.”

That number comes to $71,610 and doesn’t quite equate to the $9 million increase in the water bills.

Says O’Callaghan, “The reason the rates went up, they blame it on the chemicals, but the main thing is all the hiring… Forster brought back retired employees who aren’t needed.”

Forster said if anything, the NFWB needs to hire even more supervisors to deal with the employees. “Our executive staff is only 7 people out of 118, something like that. Our ratio for supervision is minimal. We could use more supervision, frankly,” said Forster.

When asked if Forster has ever “bullied or strong-armed NFWB employees for not supporting Mayor Restaino,” Forster responded, “Absolutely not.” When asked if Forster is involved with organized crime, or has ever been involved with organized crime in the past, he replied “Really? No.”

Regarding the attack video on Democratic Mayoral Candidate and NFWB union President Glenn Choolokian, Forster said, “Who? They’re not my ads.” The video was paid for by Democrats Building Bridges.

The Niagara Gazette recently corroborated the fact that Forster is the Chairman of the Democrats Building Bridges PAC, and Forster is listed on state filings as Chairman.

The local political operative alleged, “Money is basically being funneled to the mayor’s campaign. Look at the attack ads, paid for by the PAC. Forster’s name is on the filings. The PAC is his slush fund to go drinking.”

The operative added, “When the filings come out, they’re publicly available.”

Regarding allegations that Nick Forster was attempting to “stomp on the union,” Forster explained that he is a retired union member of 36 years.

In regards to the NFWB union payroll that was leaked and shared by Mayor Restaino’s son-in-law, Michael Kavanaugh, Forster expressed his belief that the payroll information is available on the NFWB website.

Several NFWB employees have confirmed that that information was not publicly available at the time that it was leaked by Kavanaugh, and there was absolutely no way that Kavanaugh could have known the identity of Employee 2 (Choolokian), listed on the payroll data sheet unless he was informed by someone working in the payroll department at the NFWB. NFWB insiders allege that this information was leaked by Forster’s niece who happens to work in the payroll department.

Despite the fact that the information is not on the NFWB website, Forster said, “Yeah, it’s part of our agenda packet. It’s public, I’d have to look but it should be on our website. The last meeting we had in May, it would be on the… it’s recorded. It’s on there. Everything we do is taped and we put it on our website.” The information is available on the NFWB’s YouTube in a recording of the May 22nd meeting. During that meeting, Forster displayed the payroll data and stated “We’re gonna add that to the website.” It was never added.

How Kavanaugh learned the identity of Employee 2 remains a mystery.

Former NFWB Chairman Dan O’Callaghan had a lot to say about Mayor Restaino and his relationship to Nick Forster.

For the first time, O’Callaghan chose to speak to the press about his personal experience as Chairman of NFWB.

Says O’Callaghan, “Restaino called me to his office. He said he wanted me to vote the way he told me. I told him I can’t do that Bob. I’ve still got the letter. He told me I ‘now have to replace you.’ I said do what you gotta do, I vote with my conscience. What’s right for the ratepayers is the way I vote. I’m not going to vote for something if I don’t believe in it. I left his office.”

O’Callaghan continued, “Restaino called me and he said ‘you got til 2 o’clock to change your mind.’ I said my mind was made up when I told you the first time, I vote with my conscience. That’s how I’m gonna vote, I ain’t gonna do what you tell me to do. I’m here to represent the people. Isn’t that the same campaign promise you made when you ran for mayor, you’re here for the people? That was the end of that conversation.”

“The meeting was at 5 PM Monday, and at 9 AM a police officer knocked on my door and handed me an envelope from Restaino, with a letter that said your services are no longer needed at NFWB.”

“I called up a lawyer at NFWB and I said I just got a letter. He said ‘we got one too informing us that you’re no longer on the Water Board or the Chairman.’ I said am I or ain’t I? He said ‘you’re the Chairman and you’re still on the Water Board until your replacement has been officially noted. We haven’t had a notice.’ Five minutes to 5 PM that day, the mayor appointed Ralph Aversa. Ralph went to the meeting that night and he didn’t vote on anything, he just abstained and after the meeting he resigned. Then Restaino appointed Forster to the NFWB.”

Follow the money…

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