Niagara Gazette

September 6, 2013

Group with ties to WNY Democratic Party figures financed mailer focusing on Hamister deal

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A political action committee with ties to former and current politicians and Democratic Party leaders in Western New York has taken responsibility for funding the creation and distribution of an anonymous mailer that criticized Buffalo developer Mark Hamister while praising Niagara Falls City Council candidate Sam Fruscione. 

Dan Jones, a spokesperson for the group WNY Progressive Caucus, confirmed Thursday evening the PAC hired a private vendor to develop and deliver a postcard that accused Hamister Group CEO Mark Hamister of running a “con game” in his bid to build a $25 million hotel in downtown Niagara Falls. 

The WNY Progressive Caucus is a political action committee, or PAC. According to records on file with the state board of elections, the group counts among its donors Western New York business owners and several current and former politicians, including former Erie County Democratic Party Chairman and local attorney Steve Pigeon who loaned the group $20,000 and state lawmaker Tim Kennedy whose campaign committee donated $45,000. 

Jones said information on the postcard did not reflect the position of the caucus on the Hamister project, but rather the view of the project taken by the Niagara Falls Reporter. The local weekly publication has been highly critical of the Hamister Group and its bid to secure state and local support for the construction of a new hotel and mixed-use building on a piece of city owned land located at 310 Rainbow Blvd. 

“It was to educate voters using the article from the Niagara Falls Reporter,” Jones said. 

The double-sided postcard recommended Fruscione as a candidate in Tuesday’s primary for the city council, lauding him for asking questions about the proposed Hamister deal along with fellow members of the council majority Glenn Choolokian and Robert Anderson Jr.

When asked if the WNY Progressive Caucus supported Fruscione as a candidate in the city council race, Jones said the PAC supported him and his “asking the tough questions.” Jones said the postcard was not intended to reflect the group “taking a position on the project” itself. 

When asked if Fruscione knew the group was supporting his candidacy, Jones replied: “I can’t answer that question,” before declining further comment. 

On Wednesday, Fruscione denied knowing the identity of the individuals involved in the distribution of the postcard and said it had absolutely nothing to do with him. He also said he did not condone some of the language appearing on the postcard, including references to Hamister’s so-called “con game.”

Fruscione said on Thursday that while he agreed with some of the information on the mailer he disagreed with the characterization of Hamister as a criminal.

Fruscione was the subject of an anonymous attack mailer in August bashing him for selling merchandise with the pictures of former Western New York crime boss Steffano Maggadino in his Falls Street souvenir shop.

Both mailers were regrettable, he said.

“It should have never happened,” Fruscione said.

The WNY Progressive Caucus hired Gallagher Printing of Clarence to develop the postcard. 

The campaign mailer, which was delivered to households in Niagara Falls in recent days, calls into question aspects of the Hamister agreement and is critical of Hamister Group and Hamister himself, suggesting the developer’s project is not in the best interests of the city’s residents. It was delivered using a bulk postage permit that the U.S. Postal Service has previously confirmed belongs to Gallagher Printing, one of several firms in Western New York that provide print and mail services to local campaign committees. 

Earlier in the day, Dennis Gallagher, one of the owners of company, declined to disclose the identity of the group. He said the people who financed the mailer asked that their identity not be publicly disclosed when they came in to arrange for the print job. Gallagher did insist that the people who financed the work were not from Niagara County, but were instead from the Buffalo area. 

“It wasn’t Niagara County people,” Gallagher said. “It was a different group of people. I don’t know why they do it. They just asked me to print this. I am not on anybody’s side. That’s what I do because that’s my business. If that’s what they tell me to do, I have to respect their wishes.” 

The postcard does not contain information about the individual or committee that paid for its production. State election law requires no such disclosure. 

The postcard’s delivery follows weeks of discussion about the terms of the proposed hotel agreement. In July, Fruscione, Choolokian and Anderson moved to table the deal amid concerns about the process that led to Hamister’s selection as preferred developer and the $100,000 asking price for the Rainbow Boulevard parcel involved. 

Mayor Paul Dyster, an advocate for the Hamister project, said he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to anonymously attack through the mail a developer that is looking to invest in a $25 million hotel proposal in the heart of a city in need of development. Dyster noted that under normal circumstances political mailers target candidates involved in elections, not private businessmen. 

“I’d say the more light shed on this the better,” Dyster said. “There are a whole lot of moneyed political interests out there that are trying to influence this election.” 

Reports on file with the New York State Board of Elections shows six instances between Jan. 1 and Sept. 5 in which campaign committees documented payments for services through Gallagher Printing, including $2,706 for the Friends of Binghamton mayor candidate Douglas Walter Drazen, $146.81 for the “Friends” of Buffalo Mayoral candidate Sergio Rodriguez, $1,435.50 for Cheektowaga Democrats 2013, $1,424.04 for the Niagara County Republican Committee and two payments ($573.11 and $190.31) from the WNY Progressive Caucus. 

Niagara County Republican Party Chairman Scott Kiedrowski said Thursday his committee had no involvement in the mailer’s creation or delivery. He added that he believes the Hamister proposal is a good one and it would be another “tragedy” for Niagara Falls if it were to be scuttled.

“We had absolutely nothing do with it,” Kiedrowski said. “I find no good reason why this project should not move forward.” 

Dyster viewed additional information about the source of the Hamister mailer as a welcome sign. 

“We’re celebrating the fact that this mailer hasn’t killed the project,” Dyster said. “This is what we call a victory around here.”