Niagara Gazette

September 4, 2013

Fruscione mailer makes waves

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

— An anonymous campaign mailer delivered to households in Niagara Falls has added more controversy to the already politically charged Hamister hotel deal. 

The political postcard, which touts some of the accomplishments of one candidate for city council while criticizing Buffalo developer Mark Hamister and his plans for a new $25 million downtown hotel, does not identify the individual or group that financed its creation or distribution. 

The candidate it features - Councilman Sam Fruscione - denied having anything to do with it on Wednesday, saying he's interested in finding out who printed it himself.

"I don't know where it came from and I had nothing to do with that," said Fruscione, one of four candidates involved in Tuesday's Democratic primary for city council. 

The postcard's delivery comes as Fruscione and his colleagues in the council majority, including Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Rober Anderson Jr., are continuing negotiations with Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson, officials from the state and the Hamister Group. Council majority members have suggested in recent weeks that talks have been progressing. 

On Tuesday, Choolokian said Johnson has been tracking down answers to questions majority members have been asking about the state's proposed deal with Hamister for the city-owned lot at 310 Rainbow Blvd.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Choolokian said. "We'll have to see what happens from here."

The campaign postcard calls into question the motives of Hamister Group Chairman and CEO Mark Hamister, at one point describing him as a "con man" who is trying to swindle the taxpayers of Niagara Falls. The mailer also suggests the developer is being dishonest by not releasing the details of his financial plan for the hotel before an agreement has been reached.

"What is he hiding?" part of the postcard reads. 

Andrea Czop, Hamister Group's director of communications, said Wednesday the company will reserve comment on the mailer for the time being.

The flip side of the postcard relates to Fruscione and describes him as protecting taxpayers by joining members of the council majority in a vote to table the deal in July. It also lauds him for asking "tough questions" about the proposal. 

Fruscione said that while he is mentioned on the campaign mailer, he did not finance it, nor did his campaign committee. He said it is not uncommon for political action groups to anonymously finance and distribute such material and he suspects that is the case here. He noted that in recent weeks he was the target of a similar piece of anonymous campaign literature that questioned his involvement in a downtown souvenir shop that counts T-shirts and DVDs depicting mob figures among its list of items available for sale. 

"We have both been victims in the last couple of weeks of ignorance and using inappropriate words in mailers from despicable people," Fruscione said, referring to himself and Hamister.

As to comments made about Hamister on the postcard, Fruscione described them as "kind of harsh" and said he does not condone them, nor does he believe they are fair to the developer. He said that although he does have some issues with the proposed hotel agreement, he does not have issues with Hamister himself. 

"I don't support some of the words they used for sure," Fruscione said. "I had nothing to do with it."

One of the council majority's main sticking points has been the price Hamister Group would be expected to pay for the land under the terms of the proposed deal. The proposal includes an asking price of $100,000 for the land, which is below the assessed value of $215,000 and far below the $1.5 million figure Fruscione and Choolokian believe it to be worth.

Mayor Paul Dyster and Chris Schoepflin, president of the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp., have said the reduced price is part of an incentive package for the developer.

During an update on negotiations at Tuesday's council meeting, Johnson said there had been no material changes to the terms laid out in the original project term sheet, but that language changes and clarifications had been made.

"The material terms and conditions that came from the July 2 communication are much the same today as they were then," Johnson said. "There have been a few new things that were not contemplated at that time."

Johnson declined to say whether the price of the land had been renegotiated.

"I'm not going to address that right now," Johnson said.

Dyster, who saw the mailer while home for lunch on Tuesday, said he's never seen a political mailer attacking someone who is not running for office.

"It's a political mailer that tries to make a private developer look like a criminal," Dyster said. "This is the kind of thing that gets you sued."

Dyster, who has publicly supported the project since Hamister Group was selected as the project's preferred developer in February, said the mailer's description of the state procurement process as a "sweetheart deal between Buffalo business interests and local politicians" is a "gross mischaracterization" of a process meant to prevent political interference.

"There was no sweetheart deal," Dyster said. "This was a competition that included the land."

Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti, who is also running for a Democratic line in the primary, said she was "disgusted" and "embarrassed" by the mailer.

"I was horrified when I got that in the mail," Grandinetti said.

Grandinetti and Councilman Charles Walker, another primary candidate, voted against tabling the development agreement and then voted to take the resolution off the table for action at a later council meeting. 

Grandinetti suspects Fruscione is trying to scuttle the Hamister deal, though she said she is not sure what is motivating him.

The attack on the developer reinforces a negative image that the city has been trying to shake for years, she added.

"There are many of us that have worked long and hard to change the image of this city," Grandinetti said. "It's obstructionism, plain and simple."

Fruscione said he is not out to scuttle the deal, but rather to make sure the city and its residents get the best deal possible. He also vowed to investigate the source of the mailer in question, adding that he has some "hunches" who may have been involved but can't say for sure at this point.

"I'd like to know myself," Fruscione said, referring to the mailer's origin. "It definitely had nothing to do with me at all."