Prominent Black activists from both ends of the political spectrum are outraged at the Cuomo administration’s handling of a construction management contract for the heralded Northland Corridor project proposed earlier this year. At a meeting just before the Labor Day holiday, representatives of Empire State Development and the City of Buffalo’s Urban Renewal Corporation attempted to award the contract to a disreputable multi-national firm headquartered in Rhode Island.
The alternative contractor would have been Buffalo’s own LP Ciminelli, who has architected a community partnership with the Outsource Center on Fillmore Avenue in the Northland Avenue, after being urged to do so by prominent activists and the Contract Compliance Committee.
“I am going to fight for the people in my community, where I grew up, where I pastor, who I represent on the Common Council,” said Council President Darius Pridgen, who discussed the issue with Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw on his weekly WUFO radio show.
Pridgen — having concerns that the award did not appreciate that a local firm had partnered with local members of the community to produce an exceptional response to the agency’s request for proposals — asked that the decision be tabled. That motion was seconded by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s Dottie Gallagher Cohen. The three finalists vying for the contract are being asked to present their proposals this month.
The East Side community is livid that the contract was awarded to Gilbane, the 108th largest privately held firm in the United States, founded in 1857, with nearly $3 billion in annual revenue. The firm has been the subject of various corruption allegations across a dozen states and is heavily involved in federal government contracting.
The origins of the Northland development project
The Northland Avenue Corridor project is a Cuomo administration initiative that the Governor began to push after his administration was harshly criticized for excluding the Black community from his much-heralded Buffalo Billion program. In an effort to include the East Side in that economic development program, he offered a $44.4 million Workforce Training Center to redevelop the dilapidated industrial corridor along Northland Avenue, which sits in the Masten and University districts.
That project was premised on including the minority community in the region’s broader economic comeback, which has largely excluded marginalized communities.
Neighborhood groups have been organizing for months to submit a response to the request for proposals. Community and civic leaders were able to bring LP Ciminelli, a world-class construction company headquartered on the East Side of Main Street with the Outsource Center, a workforce training program on Fillmore Avenue.
“We are told that Gilbane is being recommended for the Northland Corridor based on their mentor program,” explains Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, a longtime resident of the Northland neighborhood and a prominent East Side social justice activist.
“Who have they mentored thus far from this neighborhood? How many people in this community received mentoring from this group that actually received an opportunity? How many people in this neighborhood do any of them know?” she asks.
“Once again those from outside of our community will receive the greatest equity on a project initiative whose genesis was to include this community for its benefit and to start to correct the structural poverty on the East Side,” she argues. “Nobody lives in, or is from, the East Side of Buffalo on Gilbane’s proposal.”
Martin-Bordeaux thinks that a “mentality of the great [White] hope is clearly displayed with this action,” and is offended by “the notion that in order to be black and worthy of independent opportunity you must be among the elite.”
East Side residents are particularly riled by Gilbane’s use of Thurman Thomas as “a front” for a company that claims to be legitimately certified as a Minority Business Enterprise. Thomas is criticized by activists for having no involvement in Buffalo’s Black community, no relationships in the community, and no interest in being involved until the $44.4 million contacting opportunity presented itself.
“Thurman Thomas never started a little league program. We never see him at Mattie’s or Gigi’s for lunch. He has no history of charitable work or community involvement,” Martin-Bordeaux says, describing the anger of activists. “He has never even gotten a haircut in Buffalo’s Black community.”
Thomas is married to a cousin of Carl Paladino, whom he endorsed for Governor in 2010. He is a registered Republican and lives in Orchard Park, NY. He was born and raised in Houston, TX and went to college at Oklahoma State University. He played for the Buffalo Bills from 1988-99 before leaving to play for the Miami Dolphins, a deeply distasteful Bills fans at the time.
“This project will be more of the same. The community has not even in a single instance been involved in the rebuild of Buffalo or the Buffalo Billion program,” Martin-Bordeaux says. “No modern day major city is doing this to their minority community. Other cities are becoming more inclusive.”
On the East Side Pridgen is being widely praised for his leadership on this issue, which is seen as a matter of economic justice.
After years of being denied access to grant money and public support, East Side residents have demanded that politicians include The Outsource Center in economic development plans. Founded by Spencer Gaskin, The Outsource Center has trained hundreds of Black youth for apprenticeships in the construction trades only to be excluded from construction industry jobs.
Gilbane’s history of corruption and graft
Over the last 15 years, Gilbane Building Company has been involved in a number of cases involving allegations of government ethics violations or improper bidding for public work.
In four of these cases, public officials were charged with accepting improper gifts from Gilbane while the firm was either performing work for their agency or pursuing a contract for work with the agency. As a company, Gilbane itself has only been charged in a couple of these cases, and one was dismissed on a technicality. However, government officials in California, Arizona, Connecticut and Ohio have been terminated, caused to resign, and/or faced civil penalties in connection with ethics scandals involving Gilbane.
In one instance, a former Gilbane executive admitted to lavishing public school district officials with gifts, avoiding felony charges only by agreeing to a plea deal. This trail of public corruption raises serious questions about Gilbane and its methods of procuring public works jobs.
In 2012, a former Gilbane executive Henry Amigable pleaded Guilty in the largest public corruption case of its kind in San Diego County. Amigable pled guilty to charges that he bought expensive meals, tickets to high profile events, and other gifts for members of the San Diego-area Sweetwater Union High School District to convince the officials to award school construction contracts to Gilbane and later to two other firms.
According to one press outlet, “Amigable’s expense reports to Gilbane Building Company show that he brought various Sweetwater officials to [a San Diego fine-dining establishment] at least 18 times, spending more than $8,000 on the officials in the months leading up to Gilbane being unanimously awarded a three year $7.5 million contract.”
According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, Amigable gifted dinners and drinks at various restaurants; tickets to San Diego Chargers’ football games; theatre tickets; and tickets to the Rose Bowl. The latter came with two-nights stay for two officials at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
By pleading guilty, Amigable avoided felony charges of offering a bribe and obtaining a thing of value to influence a member of a legislative body. He was sentenced to three-year’s probation, a $1,000 fine and 100 hours of community service.
In 2014, the Sweetwater school district filed a lawsuit seeking the return of $26 million in taxpayer funds paid to a joint venture of Gilbane and SGI Construction pursuant to construction contracts awarded around the time of Amigable’s alleged illicit gifts. In February 2016, a California appeals court denied the motion of Gilbane and SGI to dismiss the case on the ground that the gifts constituted protected free speech and ruled that the school district has “demonstrated a probability of prevailing” on its claim.
A 2012 case in Arizona implicated eleven employees of Maricopa County who were placed on administrative leave following an internal investigation revealing that the employees had violated the county’s ethics policies by accepting improper gifts from contracted vendors, including Gilbane.
Gilbane was at the time constructing a $340 million criminal court tower for the county. In March 2010, Gilbane was awarded a separate $37 million contract to complete the court tower’s interior. Five employees resigned, one was terminated and three were suspended in connection with the investigation.
Another case in 2013 involved St. Petersburg College in Florida.
The college thew out a contract awarded to Gilbane after a rival firm alleged improper bidding on a $14 million contract to construct a new campus building. Rival builder Peter R. Brown Construction, Inc. protested that the college’s president had ignored the recommendations of a college selection committee and personally chosen Gilbane, even though the selection committee had ranked Gilbane’s proposal last out of three bidders. The college denied that the bidders had been ranked. Ultimately, a third firm, LEMA Construction, was awarded the job.
An Illinois case in 2010 involved a political committee funded by Gilbane and other firms. That committee was cited Illinois Elections Rule Violations. Following a referendum approving the sale of $168 million in bonds to fund construction and renovations at a Chicago-area community college, it was revealed that Gilbane was among the largest donors to the Supporters of College of DuPage, a ballot initiative committee that supported the referendum.
At the time, Gilbane was the construction manager that oversaw the recent completion of the college’s Health and Science Center. Other donors to the group had also done business with college. The state elections board ruled that the political committee violated elections rules by failing to disclose its identity on campaign signs advocating for the referendum’s passage.
In 2005, agreed to a settlement with the Connecticut State Ethics Commission for unlawful gifts to public officials. The commission charged that in 2002, while Gilbane was doing business with the state’s Department of Public Works, Gilbane president William Gilbane, Jr. purchased food, drinks, and golf related expenses for one department employee and bought another department employee food, drinks, and a pricy piece of art. One of the department employees was found to have accepted gifts from the company on more than one occasion. Under the terms of the settlement, Gilbane agreed to pay a civil penalty of $5,000.
The Ohio Ethics Commission charged Gilbane and the Executive Director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission, Randall Fischer, with state ethics violations. In a textbook “pay for play” case, Fischer failed to report gifts worth a total of $1,289 from contractors performing work for his agency; $862 of that $1,289 allegedly came from Gilbane.
According to the Ethics Commission, over a period from 1997 to 2002, Gilbane officials provided Fischer with meals, several golf outings and a two-night stay at the Rhode Island home of the company’s president, Thomas Gilbane. During the same period, Gilbane was awarded more than $10 million in no-bid construction contracts approved by Fisher.
A municipal court judge dismissed the complaint against Gilbane because it was filed too late, but Fischer was found guilty of conflict of interest charges and was fined the maximum amount of $1,250 plus court costs.
The city’s most prominent activists have mobilized around the issue of economic inclusion.