Buffalo Billion felon: Wired and hired

Republicans on the Niagara County Legislature voted Tuesday to hire a felon involved in the Buffalo Billion scandal to serve as the county’s spokesperson.

In a partisan 8-5 vote, the Legislature approved the hiring of Kevin Schuler, a politically wired executive at LPCiminelli until he pleaded guilty in May 2018 to two felony charges involving the fixing of a bid to manage the construction of the $750 million Tesla plant in South Buffalo.

Schuler will serve as the county’s public information officer and earn $79,003, an increase of nearly $10,000 from the job’s 2019 salary. The job entails handling publicity for county government and reporters’ inquiries. He is expected to start early next year.

Republican Majority Leader Randy Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, said Schuler was the most qualified job candidate. Schuler’s experience in the offices of eight state Assemblyman and a state Senator sold him. 

Bradt supported giving Schuler a taxpayer-funded job, despite his past.

“I really believe everybody should have a second chance,” he said. “What he’s doing has nothing to do with what he was charged with.” 

Bradt said he was not aware of any other person with a felony record hired by the Niagara County interview committee.

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, was critical of Schuler’s appointment and his GOP colleagues’ support of it.

“When you look at his resume, it’s a fine resume, but he left out something,” Virtuoso said. “He left out a 36-page indictment and he left out a seven-page plea bargain deal.”

Virtuoso called his employment by the county “a slap in the face to every taxpayer.” 

Virtuoso’s Democratic colleague from the Falls, outgoing Legislator Jason Zona, described PIO hiring as unnecessarily rushed. Knowledge of it was held back from his caucus, he said.

“This whole thing stunk to high hell, the way this went down,” he said. 

Bradt disputed the criticisms of the hiring process, saying they were not accurate. 

The only Republican who broke with the GOP caucus’s vote was Legislator William Collins Sr., of Lockport. He declined to discuss why after the meeting.

“At this time I didn’t think it was in the best interest for Niagara County to hire that particular individual,” he said. “My no vote was no, that’s all I have regarding the issue.”

Schuler has been an influential behind-the-scenes player in local Republican circles for years. He handled political matters for Louis Ciminelli, who was a prominent member of the local GOP power structure until his indictment.

Schuler lives in Pendleton and has served on the boards of Niagara County Community College and the Niagara Tourism Convention Corp., and as  chairman of both the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce. 

Schuler was federal prosecutors’ star witness in the trial that resulted in the conviction of  Ciminelli, his boss, and SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros on felony charges. Both defendants have appealed.

Schuler avoided a prison sentence for his cooperation, and was instead ordered to perform 400 hours of community service. He is also subject to two years of supervised release.

According to federal prosecutors, Schuler acted as a contact point for state officials who were creating the request for proposal to build the South Buffalo plant.

Schuler testified at trial that he and Ciminelli worked with the Kaloyeros and others to craft bid specifications to all but ensure LPCiminelli would obtain the construction management contract, estimated to be worth about $20 million. 

“We were in the driver’s seat,” Schuler testified, according to The New York Times. 

Schuler did not respond to multiple recent requests for comment from Investigative Post, but spoke to a reporter Tuesday at the legislature’s meeting. He answered questions from lawmakers at length, as well.

“I am a living, breathing testament that you ignore the rules of compliance and procurement at your own peril,” he said.

“And if you think the practices that you’ve done have been going on in the industry that you’re in for a long time, I’ll just say this: ‘Everyone is doing it’ wasn’t an excuse that worked with your mother, and it sure as hell doesn’t work with the Justice Department.”

Schuler said he will be effective in his new job and would not again violate the public trust.

He also said he learned from his mistakes and was qualified to do the PIO job. He has worked as a paralegal at Connors LLP, the namesake firm of Schuler’s former defense attorney Terrence Connors, since the trial. He sees the county job as his next step, he said.

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Schuler was recommended by a committee of lawmakers who interviewed five candidates Monday. 

Virtuoso said he left the room in protest during Schuler’s interview.

Republican Legislators David Godfrey, of Burt, Anthony Nemi, of Newfane, and Collins did not attend the interviews. Godfrey and Nemi did not respond to requests for comment. Collins said his absence was unintentional and due to a work conflict.

Schuler succeeds Douglas Hoover, who was recently disciplined for emailing a re-election notice from a county computer through a county email address for outgoing legislature Chairman Keith McNall, R-Lockport. McNall was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Hoover’s tenure as PIO will end Jan. 1, according to County Manager Richard Updegrove.