ECC board criticizes trustee’s bid for contract

Hormoz Mansouri is a registered Democrat and a major political player who has donated more than $400,000 to candidates since 1999.

Bill Wippert / News File Photo

Five current or former trustees of Erie Community College are criticizing fellow board member Hormoz Mansouri’s efforts to win a major construction project at the North Campus while serving on the institution’s governing body.

They say he should choose between seeking a now-delayed $30 million project and his position on the board to avoid any perception of conflict of interest.

“I don’t think he should be in the process at all; he should resign from the board,” said one trustee, who, like all interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified.

Several board members said Mansouri’s EI Team submitted an admirable plan for the $30 million academic building proposed for the college’s Amherst campus. The work the firm put in on the project has cost it a significant amount of money.

“But we couldn’t give it to Hormoz,” one board member said. “It would have killed the whole project because of public perception. How could we justify to the public that one of our own board members got a $30 million project?”

Mansouri, who burst on the local scene a decade ago as a major contributor to political candidates, insists his company has the right to seek such work as long as he abstains from voting as a board member. He further maintains that EI Team is governed by a corporate structure that prevents him from personally profiting in a project from which he separates himself.

“I would not have benefited from it,” he said. “In the same manner that a law firm has associates or partners working on projects, that does not preclude other partners from serving.”

Though the project is now delayed, ECC trustees in March voted to award the job to Kideney Architects of Amherst, rendering moot any current objections. But Mansouri’s fellow trustees still point to an appearance of conflict.

State records show Mansouri has contributed more than $15,000 to Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, who also was criticized last week for failing to join all other majority members of the local Assembly delegation in supporting the new academic building. As a result, the proposal is at least temporarily dead after passing the Senate budget process last month but failing to make it through the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Mansouri, president of EI Team, an architectural and engineering firm headquartered on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda, is a registered Democrat and a major political player who has donated more than $400,000 to candidates since 1999, according to state and federal records. He was appointed to the ECC board in 2005 by former Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

Meanwhile, sources familiar with ethics requirements of trustees serving in the State University of New York system say the Public Officers Law prohibits the appearance of impropriety and giving undue benefits. They also say the general rule is that when a trustee’s personal, business or professional activities could pose a conflict with their SUNY responsibilities, they must disclose the conflict to the chairman and general counsel of the board and then recuse themselves from conflicting matters.

The sources added that on rare occasions, counsel has advised the trustee not to undertake the private activity since the conflict would be too great.

Mansouri reiterated that he has abided by all rules outlined in state codes of ethics.

Nevertheless, County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said enough questions have been posed to him about the entire process that he has launched an official inquiry into how the bid was awarded.

Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, had been shepherding legislation to fund the ECC project through the budget process but noted that Ways and Means officials were not satisfied that the county and ECC portions of the project (amounting to $15 million) were properly appropriated. He also said officials pointed to the lack of unanimous support among local members of the Assembly.

Peoples-Stokes countered that while she preferred such a major project be built at the college’s City Campus, she would not stand in its way. She insisted, however, that the project’s death stemmed from county and ECC officials failing to properly prepare for the budget process.

Mansouri’s contributions, meanwhile, have benefited both Democrats and Republicans, as well as local theater and opera groups. He said that while his company made a presentation for the ECC project, as a trustee he does not see it as necessary.

“That building is a good symbol, but there are other items needed at that campus,” Mansouri said, adding that predictions of flat enrollment might make the building unnecessary by the time it was slated for completion in 2015.

The businessman denied exerting any influence in killing the project but said he could not in “good conscience” support it, despite his firm’s efforts to win the work.

“Other needs need to be addressed,” he said.

Neither ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. nor board Chairwoman Patricia A. Krzesinski would comment on the situation. But others on the board said the college has worked hard to rid itself of any perception that it is governed by political appointees.

One trustee who also asked not to be identified pointed out that the college — through its foundation — faced the difficult task of raising $7.5 million as its share of the project. He said the task would prove even more daunting should a firm headed by one of its own trustees receive such a lucrative contract.

“There’s a fundraising aspect to this project, and if a trustee gets the bid, how are you going to fund-raise?” the board member asked. “That would be the top story on the evening news and in your newspaper.

“The board has a reputation as an old-time political board,” the member added. “But this is the first time something has come up that would make me say: ‘I’ve got to take a shower.'”

Mansouri has just been appointed to another board with a potential to award major contracts: In March, he was named to the board of directors of Roswell Park Cancer Institute by Senate Minority Leader John L. Sampson, D-Brooklyn.

By Robert J. McCarthy

NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER