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New concerns arise about Stamford train station project as partnership derails

September 24, 2016 GMT

STAMFORD — City residents have denounced nearly everything about the state Department of Transportation’s plan to replace the dilapidated train station garage.

The DOT struck a deal with a private developer and, because of that, the plan has remained mostly secret. The criticism is the DOT is focused on earning revenue from the project, which would create a $500 million office, housing, retail and hotel complex beside the train station and move commuter parking a quarter-mile away.

Now there are serious questions about the DOT’s chosen team, a partnership called Stamford Manhattan Development Ventures (SMDV) whose members included JHM Group, ECCO III Enterprises, Gilbane Development Co. and Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. Another Ciminelli company, L.P. Ciminelli Construction, was to build the complex.

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Now two of the five partners are out, and questions surround the status of the train station project.

But Molly Stolmeier, general counsel for Gilbane Development, said Thursday in an email the company has not been involved in the Stamford project since 2013.

Stolmeier shared the information because federal authorities announced that day another SMDV partner is among nine people indicted in a sweeping corruption investigation in New York .

Louis Ciminelli, of Buffalo, N.Y., head of Ciminelli Construction, and two of his top executives have been charged in a scheme that included conspiring with New York government officials to rig bids so the company would be awarded lucrative projects, and handing out bribes to political figures who had influence over decisions about how billions of dollars in state money would be spent in a massive economic revitalization effort in upstate New York, authorities said.

Louis Ciminelli’s construction company has been dropped from the Stamford project, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said. But Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., run by Louis’ brother, Paul, remains involved.

“The Connecticut DOT continues to do its due diligence regarding Ciminelli Real Estate … to make certain that there are no connections between the two companies,” Everhart said in an email.

Commuters’ consideration

Work was supposed to begin in 2014. But the DOT is in its third year of trying to finalize a contract with SMDV to redevelop the Stamford station, one of the busiest commuter railroad stops in the nation and the key to the city’s economic health.

The DOT’s goal is for the train station to be a model for transit-oriented development, which aims to get cars off the road by building housing, offices and retail near transportation hubs.

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Everhart said Friday the DOT is still negotiating with Ciminelli Real Estate, ECCO III, and the principal partner, JHM Group, headed by Darien millionaire John McClutchy.

But the loss of two partners is troubling for a project that already has languished for three years, said Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County.

“The indictment in Buffalo raises serious concerns,” said McGee, who was a member of the committee advising the DOT on the project in 2013. “The delay in this contract has been quite extensive and not fully explained as it is. Now there is this new question about the partnership. Does McClutchy have the financial werewithall to negotiate the contract?”

John Hartwell, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said all Stamford train-station users need is a place to park.

“The commuters want the parking garage to be rebuilt, in place. The DOT wants a transit-oriented development project, which will expand station uses and bring in revenue,” Hartwell said. “But they haven’t been able to deliver. And I think it’s time for them to reconsider.”

Michael Pollard, chief of staff to Mayor David Martin, said the DOT has largely left the city out of its plans, so commenting on the status of the project “would really just be guessing at this point.”

“The state will be responsible for whatever the state ultimately concludes,” Pollard said.

Barry Michelson, a former member of the Stamford Zoning Board, helped amend the regulations to require city approval for structural changes around the train station. Michelson cited a 1976 state Supreme Court case that found if a government agency uses its property to engage in a business enterprise, it is subject to city zoning regulations.

“The bidding should have been open, and the concerns of commuters and the overall benefit to the city should have been taken into account,” Michelson said. “I think the whole thing should be re-bid, because the way the DOT made the award, the secretiveness of the process, leaves a lot of room for speculation.”

Well-timed contributions

Some of the speculation surrounds political contributions.

Records show Louis and Paul Ciminelli and their families gave Connecticut’s Democratic State Central Committee $42,500, including $20,000 on Oct. 16, 2014 — less than two weeks before Gov. Dannel Malloy’s re-election.

McClutchy and his wife and son wrote checks totaling $30,000 to state Democrats 10 days before the DOT announced SMDV was the preferred developer for the train station project. McClutchy wrote another $10,000 check in January 2015, three days before Malloy was sworn in to a second term.

McClutchy and other executives involved in the train station project, and their families, contributed at least $165,000 to the state Democratic Party’s federal account, a Hearst Connecticut Media review has shown.

Jim Cameron, a longtime commuter advocate in Connecticut and founder of the Commuter Action Group, said considering the Ciminelli indictments in New York, he hopes Malloy “seriously reconsiders the worthiness” of the Stamford train station development team.

“The whole idea of anyone bidding on a state contract who then makes political donations is just wrong,” Cameron said in an email. “Whether there is any quid pro quo or ‘pay to play’ is for the FBI and courts to determine. But on its very appearance, the donations by the partners who won the nod for the Stamford garage project certainly appear suspect.”

angela.carella@scni.com; 203-964-2296; stamfordadvocate.com/angelacarella.