Follow the Money
The Niagara Falls Reporter has learned that Mark Hamister, CEO of the Hamister Group, selected as the preferred developer for a hotel project in Niagara Falls by Empire State Development, USA Niagara and the city of Niagara Falls, was formerly on the board of directors of Empire State Development, the very group that selected him.
Hamister was also a large and recent donor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who controls appointments to both Empire State Development and USA Niagara.
On top of that, one of Hamister's business partners, Paul Ciminelli, currently serves on the Empire State Development Board.
In October of 2011, USA Niagara issued a RFP for development of the city owned property at 310 Rainbow Blvd. in Niagara Falls.
In response, USA Niagara, a subsidiary of Empire State Development, the governor’s lead development agency, received seven responses to develop the property.
One of these was from the Hamister Development Company, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company.
In early 2012, after a series of closed-door meetings among representatives of the city, USA Niagara and Empire State Development, Hamister was selected. The process was confidential and to this date the public does not know details of any of the other half-dozen proposals that were made.
When the Niagara Falls City Council questioned the transparency of the deal, they were severely criticized in many quarters, including by the media, for being obstructionists.
Hamister said he planned to build an upscale,100-room hotel, 24 apartments and 8,000 square feet of retail space.
The company owns 10 "select-service" or low amenity hotels in various states.
Hamister is also on the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and was formerly its chairman.
Over the years he has made sizeable campaign contributions, mostly to Republicans, with four notable exceptions.
Among Democrats, Hamister has been most generous to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who, as governor, appoints the Board of Directors of Empire State Development with the consent of the State Senate. The chairman is appointed solely by the governor.
USA Niagara is a subsidiary of Empire State Development and is also under the governor's direct control.
The president of Empire State Development is Ken Adams and the regional WNY president is Sam Hoyt, who was appointed by the governor to his $139,000 per year salary.
Hamister has made at least one campaign contribution to Hoyt, in 2002.
Adams earns $175,000 per year.
Both Adams and Hoyt serve at the pleasure of the governor.
But the connections between Hamister and the various men who picked him show that, if nothing else, he was well known to them.
USA Niagara's president is Chris Schoepflin who also serves at the pleasure of the governor. He earns $105,908 per year.
Before joining USA Niagara, Schoepflin was senior director for planning for the Buffalo Sabres during the time when Hamister was trying to buy the Sabres franchise.
Hamister failed to complete the purchase because his demand for $40 million in public assistance did not come through. At the time of the offer, in 2002, Hamister was chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
When Schoepflin left the Sabres, he came to USA Niagara.
Sometime afterward, Hamister was appointed by Gov. George Pataki to the Board of Directors of Empire State Development Corporation for a term commencing in 2005 and expiring in 2009.
Hamister is listed by www.ranker.com as among the top 16 "most notable" Empire State Development Employees of all time.
He was also the only Western New York representative at Empire State Development on its seven-member board. Meanwhile, as Hamister got to the Empire State Board, Schoepflin, a senior project manager, was promoted to president of USA Niagara.When he won the appointment, Schoepflin thanked the Empire State Development chairman “and the Board of Directors in my selection."
While at the press conference announcing Hamister's selection in 2012, Hoyt, Schoepflin and Dyster posed with a representative of the Hamister Group.
They did not disclose details of how they reached their decision, but Hoyt told the Reporter that “the team” picked the Hamister Group after a thorough review.
It wasn't until July 2013, that USA Niagara Development Corp. finally released information concerning the extent of the public financing and revealed the names of some of the other companies that made proposals without revealing what the nature of their proposals were.
Uniland Development of Amherst, DHD Ventures, Rochester, North Carolina Eastern Hospitality Advisors, Buffalo, and LMK Realty Associates were said to have submitted proposals. Two other bids were submitted, but were deemed "non-responsive" by the agency and their names were not publically mentioned. Neither was the reason why they were deemed "non -responsive."
According to Schoepflin, five firms were interviewed by a five-person committee: The committee members were Schoepflin; Paul Tronolone, senior planner at USA Niagara; Steve Gawlik, attorney for Empire State Development; Craig Johnson, corporation counsel for the city of Niagara Falls; and Thomas J. DeSantis, the city's senior planner.
USA Niagara admitted the firms received scores based on a subjective interview process and rated as to which would "best achieve the objectives as stated in the RFP."
The exact nature of the rating system was never explained.
The Hamister Group was given the high core of 529; Uniland 470; DHD 448; Eastern Hospitality 410; and LMK 233.
Dyster denied the council majority’s assertion that the process leading up to the selection of the developer was less than fully transparent. He also said he was not personally involved in negotiations with Hamister and added a new name to the list of those involved in the selection process. Attorneys from the law firm, Jaeckle Fleischmann, who worked on the agreement on the city’s behalf.
Tim Loftis, a partner in Jaekle Fleishmann, like Hamister, was a former chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. In fact, Loftis was secretary for the board when Hamister was chairman. Both men sit on the Board of Directors of the partnership today.
Meantime, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, both weighed in on the project.
Schumer told the Niagara Gazette that the Hamister project is “exactly the type of work that Niagara Falls needs." And told WGRZ that to not make the Hamister deal "makes no sense....I will be urging all parties to allow this to happen."
Higgins said the Hamister proposal is a “serious proposal” from a “serious developer... It’s an exciting project” and called the project "absolutely essential to the revitalization of downtown."
Hamister has donated $4,400 to Higgins since 2010.
Hamister donated at least $2,000 to Schumer since 2009.
While Cuomo elected to not comment on the Hamister deal, he is the one with the final say.
Hamister has made at least $10,000 in donations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently, according to http://www.elections.state.ny.us.
On top of that, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership helped Cuomo, according to the Buffalo News, “funnel $800,000 in contributions to a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization that critics called a front for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's political and policy agendas.”
On www.whitehouseforsale.org, Mark Hamister is listed as one of the nations “mega-donors,” for his contribution of $28,500 to John McCain and many thousands more to other candidates, according to published reports.
In addition, when Mitt Romney visited Buffalo last year, Hamister was co -host of a party that charged attendees $10,000 per head to attend.
In a 2003 profile in the Buffalo News headlined “A Matter of Pull," Hamister is described as having strong influence in the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, called Western New York’s “most influential business organization.”
In a more recent article, the News wrote that the Partnership served as "'the gatherer'" to transfer nearly $1 million in contributions from various business interests in Western New York to the Committee to Save New York... a group that has helped Cuomo - through millions of dollars in ad campaigns - push everything from a property tax cap to spending cuts opposed by labor unions but backed by business interests."
Finally, only one of the six members of the current Empire State Development Board Paul F. Ciminelli, CEO and President of Ciminelli Development Company, is also a partner in Mensch Capital Partners - a development group that includes not only Ciminelli, but Paul Kolkmeyer, Andrew Shaevel and Mark Hamister.
As quoted in the Buffalo News. "Ciminelli CEO Paul F. Ciminelli said he's excited to partner with Hamister.
"'Mark and his company bring tremendous credence to our hotel component and to the project overall; they bolster our existing experience on this type of development," Ciminelli said in a written statement.'"
One has to wonder, is Ciminelli the affiliate named in the proposal?
Is he the money behind Hamister?
Was his name not mentioned because he is on the Empire State Board?
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
AUG 06, 2013