Investigative Post filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court today seeking the release of two studies that are central to negotiations involving a proposed new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Both studies were commissioned by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which is affiliated with the Bills, and shared with Empire State Development, the state’s primary economic development agency.
One study considered the feasibility of building a new stadium or renovating Highmark Stadium, the cost of doing so, and the possible location of a new venue. The other study evaluated the economic impact of the Bills and other sports and entertainment holdings owned by the Pegulas in Buffalo and Rochester.
Pegula Sports has shared select portions of the studies that support their push for a new stadium, but has refused to release the reports in their entirety.
Investigative Post requested the studies from ESD under the state Freedom of Information Law. The agency refused the request, contending the studies contain information that “if disclosed would impair present or imminent contract awards.”
In its lawsuit and supporting documents, Investigative Post has countered that disclosure would not impede negotiations because PSE has already shared the two studies with ESD. The lawsuit challenges the agency’s determination that the records are not public.
“These documents are critical to understanding the financial undertaking for the new stadium and the impact it will have on New York State and Erie County taxpayers,” the lawsuit states. “Releasing the studies will not impair a contract award because there are no competitors involved in the stadium negotiations.”
Lawyers representing Investigative Post stressed the need for transparency.
“This lawsuit is about whether the people get to know what the government is doing and how they intend to spend the public’s money,” said Michael Higgins, assistant director of the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo Law School.
Added Karim Abdulla of Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla: “Here we have a case where the public — including taxpayers of Western New York — is being asked to subsidize a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s critical that the public is aware of all of the facts.”
Officials from ESD and Erie County are negotiating with the team over its demand for a 60,000-seat, open-air stadium in Orchard Park. The venue would cost $1.4 billion and the Pegulas want taxpayers to cover a substantial, but unspecified, amount of the expense. Press accounts have put that figure as high as $1 billion, which would represent the largest subsidy ever for an NFL stadium.
The refusal by ESD to release the studies is part of an effort by government officials to suppress the release of key documents that are central to stadium negotiations.
For example, Erie County commissioned an engineering study of Highmark Stadium, the team’s current home. After the study was completed earlier this year, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said renovating the stadium would be cost prohibitive. Investigative Post requested a copy of the engineering report in a FOI request; the county responded by releasing the 235-page report redacted almost in its entirety.
The county said releasing details about the stadium could “endanger the life or safety of any person who enters the stadium.” The county also said releasing the engineering study would “impair an imminent contract award” in light of ongoing stadium negotiations.
The county rejected another FOI request from Investigative Post seeking release of the two PSE studies that are the subject of the lawsuit filed Wednesday. The county contended it did not have copies of the stadium study, even though Poloncarz acknowledged the county attorney’s office reviewed it.
Likewise, the University at Buffalo Regional Institute rejected a FOI request from Investigative Post for the economic impact study, which it reviewed at PSE’s request. Like the county, the Regional Institute claimed it did not have a copy of the study.
Neither the county nor the Regional Institute are the subjects of the lawsuit.
One study, commissioned by the state, was released a month ago. It considered possible locations, construction costs and tax revenue generated by the team. State consultants presumably drew on the PSE studies in crafting their report.
Investigative Post is a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo. Established in 2012, it is best known for reporting that exposed corruption in the Buffalo Billion program. Investigative Post’s partners include WGRZ TV News, the NBC affiliate for the Buffalo market.