Watergate 2.0: Chairman Forster and Mayor Restaino’s Unholy Alliance Drains Residents’ Wallets at NF Water Board

By Ken Cosentino

Put on your wetsuit, slip on your flippers and let’s take a deep dive into the cesspool that is Nick Forster’s Niagara Falls Water Board.

As a homeowner and resident of the City of Niagara Falls, I am extremely concerned by what you are about to read. Residents of neighboring municipalities are paying a fraction of the cost that we pay for our water. Mayor Restaino’s appointed Chairman of the Niagara Falls Water Board, Nick Forster, is directly responsible for the huge increase in our water bills over the past three years.

Nick Forster’s Niagara Falls Water Board is a repulsive rat’s nest, and the allegations made by past and present employees are extremely disturbing, as are the implications for Mayor Restaino’s re-election campaign.

Nick Forster and Mayor Restaino

The Reporter interviewed four employees from the Niagara Falls Water Board (NFWB), each individually. All four employees independently elected to speak under anonymity, out of fear of retribution from Nick Forster. For the sake of clarity, the employees will be presented as NFWB Insiders #1, #2, #3 and #4, respectively.

After being fired from the board by the Niagara Falls City Council, Nick Forster was re-appointed to NFWB, this time by Mayor Restaino; whom Forster had previously hired as the NFWB attorney.

Forster created a Political Action Committee (or PAC) called “Democrats Building Bridges,” and uses it to support Mayor Restaino’s re-election campaign.

According to the Niagara Gazette, “The Mayor was the guest of honor during the ‘First Day of Summer Picnic,’ a campaign fundraiser held Wednesday evening at LaSalle waterfront park. The event was organized by Democrats Building Bridges, a political action committee overseen by Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman and Restaino appointee Nick Forster.”

Last night’s fundraiser provided Restaino with an alibi for missing the mayoral candidate debate sponsored by the Niagara Gazette and WEBR.

Past fundraisers held by Forster’s PAC to benefit Restaino’s first mayoral campaign are rumored to have sold tickets at $500 per plate.

During a recent public exchange, Mayor Restaino’s son-in-law, Michael Kavanaugh, inadvertently exposed possible serious violations which potentially involve one of Restaino’s most loyal supporters, Nick Forster.

Nick Forster

Michael Kavanaugh is married to Danielle Restaino, a city court judge who obtained her position with support from her father. Several days ago, Kavanaugh entered into a candid public exchange of words on Facebook with local political analysts and union members.

During this exchange, Kavanaugh shared a video smearing mayoral candidate Glenn Choolokian. The video was originally posted on Nick Forster’s personal Facebook profile, with superimposed text that reads “PAID FOR BY DEMOCRATS BUILDING BRIDGES,” Forster’s PAC.

Democratic candidate Glenn Choolokian works as one of three union presidents at NFWB. The smear video alleges that Choolokian has been using paid union time whilst simultaneously working his campaign trail.

Kavanaugh shared more than just the smear video – he also shared a screenshot which included payroll information about NFWB union officials’ paid time off. The union officials are not named in the data sheet, so Kavanaugh took it upon himself to violate Choolokian’s privacy, stating “His time off is on the NFWB website USW employee #2.”

There are two major issues with Kavanaugh’s statement: The information he shared cannot be found anywhere on the NFWB website, and Kavanaugh somehow knew which employee record was Glenn Choolokian’s.

NFWB Insider #1 told the Reporter, “I saw the video accusing Choolokian of using union time to campaign. It’s bullshit. Glenn used his time off to deal with an increased amount of union grievances, which require working with our attorneys and the district.”

According to several sources, the increased amount of union grievances is the result of an unhealthy work environment which spawned from Forster’s appointment.

NFWB Insider #4 said, “I am afraid to go to work every day. I have problems sleeping. It’s horrible. Forster is demoting tenured employees, promoting his friends and family who haven’t taken the civil service exam and who don’t live in Niagara Falls. The union has not been able to protect its employees.”

NFWB Insider #4 added, “Nobody will talk. Everybody’s afraid of Forster because if he finds out anything about us, he will try to fire us.”

Regarding the leaked payroll information, NFWB Insider #1 said, “The information shared by Kavanaugh looked to me like it came off an in-house computer system from the Water Board. He stated it’s on their website – it’s not on their website. That’s false information. He had to have been given that information from someone in-house.”

NFWB Insider #1 continued, saying “The data was a list of maybe a dozen employees, no names. Somehow Kavanaugh knew that Employee 2 was Glenn Choolokian. He could not have known that unless somebody from inside the Water Board gave him the information from payroll or from the computer system.”

NFWB Insider #4 said “Payroll has to be leaking that information, and Forster’s niece has been in there for about a year.”

During a NFWB meeting on May 22nd, 2023; Chairman Nick Forster interrupted the budget portion of the presentation by displaying the exact same information shared by Kavanaugh.

Referring to the payroll data, Forster says, “We’re gonna add that also to the website and we’ll include that information.” Only it appears that the information was never added to the website, where Kavanaugh claimed to have obtained it.

The minutes for the May 22nd NFWB meeting can be found on YouTube, listed (incorrectly) as “May 20, 2023 NFWB Meeting Recording” and the aforementioned portion is around the 11:45 mark.

NFWB Insider #1 told the Reporter, “Forster wanted it posted on the website. I don’t believe it’s on there, I believe that information was given from an employee and I think it’s awfully coincidental that Nick Forster’s niece works in the payroll department. If you look at the image [shared by Kavanaugh], there are multiple tabs open on top. It looks like it’s taken off of a spreadsheet program.”

In addition to potential labor law violations, the smear video potentially violates election laws if coordination between the PAC and the mayor’s campaign can be proven.

During the interview process, the following accusations made by NFWB insiders are deeply concerning, as they explain exactly why our water bill is nearly four times the amount of neighboring towns and villages.

Since his appointment as Chairman of the NFWB, Nick Forster has hired countless friends and family members to high paying positions. He has also found/created every possible opportunity to spend exorbitant amounts of taxpayer dollars. His spending is reflected in our water bills.

NFWB Insider #3, a former executive, told the Reporter “The Mayor and Forster are in cahoots. Forster is just like Restaino. He’s a bully, and it’s his way or no way. You can’t reason with him. Right now, there’s probably $1.5 million in payroll at the Water Board that’s not needed.”

NFWB Insider #3 continued, saying “It’s all public money. Taxpayers pay for it. You’re feeling it because you’re getting taxed. You’re getting the bill, I’m getting the bill. It’s all because of Nick Forster.”

NFWB Insider #4 said, “Forster keeps making office space for all his people that he keeps hiring. He’s been knocking down walls; he just knocked out two offices upstairs and renovated a state-of-the-art conference room that’s unneeded. It includes five 85 inch TV’s. He just ripped apart customer service. We have contractors working all over the place and we don’t need it. He goes through them like he’s changing his underwear, firing and hiring new ones. There’s dust everywhere and the noise from the construction is non-stop, it’s unbearable!”

Regarding the PAC “Democrats Building Bridges,” past contribution reports show a link between NFWB vendors and donors. NFWB Insider #3 expressed a strong opinion about this, alleging “Some of these companies will give you money, but you pay it back on change orders. It’s hard to prove. Say I sell you five $500 tickets, that’s $2,500. Then the next time you bill me, somewhere in that billing you’ve added $2,500.”

NFWB Insider #3 is alleging that some donors buy tickets to a fundraiser and then later receive a reimbursement from our tax dollars, which is added to contractual service charges and billed to the NFWB. These allegations should be taken seriously by the Attorney General’s office, as well as the FBI.

NFWB Insider #3 continued, “If you look at the list of the donors, it’s all the companies that work for the Water Board. They all buy 4 or 5 or 6 tickets.”

NFWB Insider #2 said, “Anything dirty you can think of, Forster will do. The tie between Forster and Restaino is the Democrats Building Bridges.”

All four NFWB Insiders alleged potential election fraud, centered around a NFWB employee who allegedly passed petitions for Mayor Restaino while driving around in a NFWB truck.

NFWB Insider #2 alleges, “A Republican employee of the Water Board, hired by Forster, was getting signatures for Mayor Restaino’s petitions. He’s not supposed to be doing that. Nick’s niece, who is a notary public, notarized the petitions as though she witnessed the signatures. The Republican employee’s neighbors signed the petitions. At least two of the signatures were clearly signed by the same person.”

Democratic candidate for City Council Jim Perry has been publicly outspoken about the corruption at NFWB. Perry was the Director of Administrative Services at NFWB. Last year, he stated publicly that the water bill increases were a result of “bad business practices.”

Jim Perry

Perry wrote, “A complete financial audit and investigation by an independent organization with complete transparency is the only way to restore the public’s faith in this corrupt political machine.”

Perry also stated “How is it in the time span we are discussing, Niagara County water rates have only increased a fraction of those of Niagara Falls? And, may I add, the County pays their rank & file significantly more than the Niagara Falls Water Board does, that is unless you are one of the friends and family of the Chairman.”

Three out of four NFWB insiders directly mentioned the Executive Director of NFWB, Dr. Abderrahman Zehraoui, who was hired by Forster. According to the interviewees, Dr. Zehraoui has been known to drive a NFWB vehicle to and from his home in East Chicago, Indiana every week.

Says NFWB Insider #3, “The Executive Director lives in East Chicago, Indiana. I think you’d have to have a residency rule to be making $180,000 or $190,000 a year; driving a NFWB truck home every week. Nick hired him. The only reason he’s there is because he has a license to run the plant.”

NFWB Insider #4 stated, “Dr. Z. does nothing, he doesn’t show up for meetings… and if he does show up, he falls asleep. They stopped him from doing quite a few things because he smashed the truck several times. We paid for that, we paid for him to go back and forth to East Chicago every single weekend.”

Jim Perry also mentioned Dr. Zehraoui, “With the Executive Director earning more than $175,000 per year, why is it he needs a vehicle with his gas, insurance, and maintenance fully paid for at the expense of the rate payers? We are not even counting his living allowance and other perks he has with this job.”

Further allegations made against Nick Forster by the NFWB insiders during their interviews with the Reporter include:

– Nick Forster allegedly bypassing NFWB bylaws by not calling the Niagara Falls Civil Service office to test “temporary” employees, whom he hired;

– Hiring consultants at $40 per hour to perform the duties of unqualified employees who did not pass or did not take a civil service exam;

– An abundance of new construction and erroneous expenditures at NFWB, including: a brand new conference room, fully equipped; replacing all of the toilet paper (after accusing employees of stealing toilet paper), replacing paper towel dispensers and the toilets in the building;

– Forster allegedly providing perks such as vehicles and cell phones (paid for by tax dollars) to his friends and family members, whom he hired at NFWB;

– Forster allegedly strong-arming and bullying employees for not supporting Mayor Restaino;

– Alleged attempts by Nick Forster to “stomp on” the NFWB union;

NFWB Insider #3 summed it up by saying, “They do what they want. I call it bullying and strong-arming people. Nick Forster and Robert Restaino are two peas in the same pod.”

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