7 Investigates: Did NCCC president steer millions in public funds to favored businesses?

It was supposed to be a tasty new recipe for Niagara Falls. Niagara County Community College President Jim Klyczek said the site of his new culinary school could only be described as priceless.

But a 7 Eyewitness News investigation shows the NCCC may have been cooked with enough bad ingredients to make taxpayers lose their appetites.

Documents obtained by 7 Eyewitness News show that top officials at NCCC targeted specific companies for major public projects, including businesses with ties to school officials.

The findings are so shocking, as one board member put it, that the fallout started even before our investigation hit the air. The NCCC board held two special meetings last week and brought in outside lawyers to investigate the matter.

Two sources tell us that the FBI called them about the actions of Klyczek, the longest-serving president in NCCC’s history. We talked to the FBI, who neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a probe.

 

The $30 million project was built primarily with taxpayer money, and college records show that board members gave Klyczek the authority to negotiate the deals.

That included a $1 million contract that went to L.P. Ciminelli to manage the much-anticipated construction project.

Former LP Ciminelli Vice President Kevin Schuler, currently under indictment for the buffalo billion scandal, was an active member of the NCCC board at the time the culinary deal went to his company. LP Ciminelli beat out eight other firms for the job – even though bidding documents show the firm submitted the highest of the eight bids.

Company lawyers stressed that professional service contracts do allow public agencies to factor other elements besides cost – and documents show LP Ciminelli also received the highest-rated technical score among the eight bidders.

Email exchanges

Emails between NCCC president James Klyczek and Randy Bowen

President Klyczek emailed one of his VP’s about that construction deal, telling him to quote, “check with kevin…privately – not in front of any trustee…”

Schuler, through a lawyer, said he refrained from voting on projects with LP Ciminelli – although we could find no evidence that he did recuse himself on this project.

Another pile of taxpayer money went to cannon design for architectural services.

“Check with Kevin…privately – not in front of any trustee…”

Klyczek’s emails, obtained by 7 Eyewitness News, show he wanted to give the company a lucrative deal – worth more than a million dollars -- without public bidding. 

“Sole source,” Klyczek said. “because I want Cannon on the team…”

Klyczek’s vice president, Bill Schickling, said that there was quote, “weak justification” for the move because it was a quote “pro-active measure by the college to preclude competition.”

Wondering how everyone is connected? Check out this interactive map, courtesy of Littlesis

College procedures require that any public works contract worth more than $20,000 must be put out to a formal RFP (request for proposal) process with at least three vendors. The architecture contract in question was worth more than $1 million.

“Does he understand and agree?” Klyczek asked Vice President Randy Bowen about Schickling.

“Not really,” said Bowen. “However, he understands our point of view. He would prefer us to at least do the charade of an RFP process and then select Cannon.”

That’s exactly what happened, to the tune of $1.1 million dollars.

Like LP Ciminelli, Cannon has some key connections to the school. Mike Mistriner was one of Cannon’s top architects for the culinary project. His brother is Mark Mistriner, an NCCC food professor who helps run the culinary institute.

You may be wondering whether the NCCC was getting legal advice for all of this? One of the college hired lawyers who could answer that question was part of the web of political influence at n-triple-see.

NCCC bid out legal work for the culinary school in 2010, but Klyczek’s emails show he wasn’t happy with the three firms who responded.

“Where the hell is Harris Beach?” Klyczek emailed his VP’s.

"He would prefer us to at least do the charade of an RFP process and then select Cannon.”

One of Harris Beach’s partners was Henry Wojtaszek, former GOP chairman of Niagara county who later became vice-chairman of the NCCC board. Like Schuler, his name is prominently displayed for visitors to see when they enter the culinary institute. But Wojtaszek’s firm never sent a response to the RFP, so Klyczek directed Schickling to quote, “extend it or start over.”

Schickling said, “that would clearly be rigging of the procurement process.”

The RFP was extended anyway, and even though Harris Beach never put in a bid, documents show that some of its lawyers did perform legal work for NCCC

More emails between Kylczek, Bowen, Bill Schickling, and others

Klyczek responds

We don’t know why Kylczek appeared to favor these companies, but consider this: two years later, when the president’s contract was up for approval, the first two board members to move the agenda item were Schuler, and Wojtaszek.

State taxpayers pay Klyczek’s salary of $185,000 per year – plus a take-home car. He wouldn’t sit for an interview, but we caught up with him at a special meeting where his own trustees hired lawyers to look into the matter.

“just wondering if you have anything to say about all this,” We asked. “Do you have anything to say to the taxpayers?”

"I have no comment,” He replied.

We asked a follow up. “Anything you want to say to reassure people that things were done the right way here?”

Klyczek's response? “Charlie, I don’t know what to tell ya…”

The whole situation make Sandborn taxpayer Rosemary Warren shake her head.

"I wonder...where's their ethics?" she said. "Where's the ethics of this, using the word charade. How ethical is that? And do you really have my best interests when you’re using that word? I don’t think so.”

Warren has spent the last 30 years attending government meetings, but even she says she's never heard of officials spelling out such a brazen scheme in writing.

"I expect them to do the best for me," Warren said. "Are you gonna again, use little conflict of interest people, and play little games with us? And think we’re too dumb to know?

"They weren’t being too fair to us," she added. "When you think about it. They were willing to pull the wool over our eyes. You lifted the cap up a little bit.

7 Eyewitness News attempted to contact all of the companies and people named in this story. They either declined interview requests or did not comment by air time. Despite multiple attempts, Michael Mistriner could not be reached to comment.

 

Other documents related to this investigation

Charlie Specht

Charlie Specht is an investigative reporter for 7 Eyewitness News. Photojournalist Jeff Wick assisted with video editing for this story.