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WASHINGTON – Peace Bridge Authority Chairman Sam Hoyt said state officials had “brainwashed” potential opponents of plaza renovations at the bridge in order to win their support.

Maria C. Lehman, the state’s Peace Bridge project manager, said design work for the project was nearing completion – even though, under federal law, design work is not supposed to be done until after a final federal environmental approval.

Lehman then went on to explain how she was plotting to keep that environmental approval quiet in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit, and to win Common Council approval of property transactions tied to the Peace Bridge project by circumventing a committee whose chairman is one of the projects’s fiercest critics, North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr.

It all happened in a little-noticed public meeting of the Peace Bridge Authority board April 25, and it’s all revealed in audio recordings obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and released to The Buffalo News on Wednesday.

The environmental group said the audio recordings and other documents that it obtained proved that the state had violated federal environmental law in rushing to complete its Gateway Connections plan to link the Peace Bridge to Interstate 190 with new entrance and exit ramps.

The group, which calls itself PEER, asked the White House Council on Environmental Quality to rescind that environmental approval, or “record of decision,” and halt further construction until an investigation is completed.

“The Peace Bridge appears to exemplify boosterism trampling ethics,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. “There is a pattern of underhanded, deceitful actions employed by multiple government agencies, which treat legal requirements as speed bumps to be run over to reach their desired destination.”

But the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the Gateway Connections project, said the state had followed the letter of the law in moving the project forward.

“This complaint has no merit and is wrong on the facts – which are that all state and federal guidelines regarding public input on this project were followed, which included purchasing a legal notice in The Buffalo News,” said Beau Duffy, a DOT spokesman. “The only physical work the project prior to the record of decision being issued was preliminary design work, which is also allowable under the law and was precleared with our partners on the federal level.”

In any case, the audio recording of that April 25 Peace Bridge meeting shows officials speaking in unusually candid terms.

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Hear Peace Bridge Authority Chairman Sam Hoyt say state officials “brainwashed” opponents of a Peace Bridge expansion, and state official Maria C. Lehman explain the timetable for moving the project forward quickly without publicity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKN-B8vtLww&feature=youtu.be

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For example, Lehman argued against doing a news release on the environmental approval, saying: “I think some of it has been a conscious decision not to kick sleeping dogs that otherwise might not be paying as close of attention as they are.”

Hoyt replied: “But along those lines, we’ve also, continuing the analogy, brainwashed – no, worked closely with, nudged – those sleeping dogs and brought them over to our side. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is the best example.”

Asked about those comments Wednesday, Hoyt said: “It was not a serious comment that I corrected as soon as I said it. It was a poor choice of words. But I don’t deny meeting with, educating, communicating with and providing information to lots of different stakeholders, including the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.”

Then again, Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, offered a very different account on how the state settled on the Gateway Connections plan to build a ramp directly connecting the Peace Bridge Plaza to I-190 and thereby restoring Front Park to a condition far closer to its original design.

“To say we’re being nudged is ridiculous because that’s the direction in which we were nudging them,” Herrera-Mishler said, noting that his organization has been working to steer traffic out of Front Park for decades.

Meanwhile, Kathleen R. Mecca, the neighborhood activist who has been fighting the Peace Bridge plaza plan, said:

“What kind of person would brag about brainwashing and deceiving the public’s right to know when they are behind a project they know is harmful to the health and welfare of innocent children?

And Golombek – the Council member whose opposition to the plaza plan stems from research showing high asthma rates in the neighborhood – said he was shocked at Hoyt’s comments. “You don’t have to brainwash people if nothing’s wrong,” said Golombek, who called on Hoyt to resign, or for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to fire him as the governor’s top economic official in Western New York.

State officials downplayed the importance of any comments on Hoyt coming from Golombek, who lost two primary elections to Hoyt when the latter was a member of the Assembly representing Buffalo.

And they also tried to offer a different spin on Lehman’s comments at the April 25 meeting, in which she said: “The design is underway now, the final plans are due to be done the end of May.” If that statement were true, that would mean that the state completed design work on the project before the early June completion of the environmental approval.

And if that were so, the state would have violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which forbids “committing resources prejudicing selection of alternatives before making a final decision.” State officials said, though, that the May completion of design work that Lehman had referred to was for preliminary design – which included alternatives to the ramp plan that was eventually selected after the record of decision was released.

PEER’s Ruch wasn’t buying that, though. The group, which works with government whistle-blowers to expose environmental wrongdoing, noted that on May 22, WBFO reported that a barge carrying a crane was docked south of the Peace Bridge, digging soil borings for the Gateway Connections project’s pedestrian bridge.

State officials insisted that this was preliminary site work and not construction, but PEER said the barge – along with 687 pages of detailed design drawings posted to the DOT website in late May and early June – prove that the state had begun work on the Peace Bridge ramp project before receiving the final environmental approval.

“This type of activity makes a mockery of what is supposed to be an objective environmental analysis,” Ruch said.

Ruch was equally aghast at the section of the audio recording in which Lehman and Hoyt can be heard plotting to avoid publicity about the environmental approval because, under federal law, affected parties have 120 days to sue to try to stop such projects.

“When do we begin to tell the story so we can garner, you know, public support for this project?” asked former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, a Peace Bridge Authority board member.

“One hundred and 21 days from the record of decision being signed,” Lehman replied.

Hoyt followed later in the conversation by saying: “Trying to minimize the number of negativists and potential (for them to) be able to sue us.”

On its YouTube video clip of the meeting, though, PEER noted another reason for a 120-day delay. It would push the project announcement to early October, a month before Election Day, when Cuomo will face off against Republican Rob Astorino.

Adding it all up, Ruch said: “Deceiving the public with behind-the-scenes maneuvering signifies that these were not innocent mistakes.”

Meanwhile, Golombek wasn’t exactly impressed with the part of the meeting in which Lehman said she had met with Council President Darius G. Pridgen and other Council officials to discuss a way of winning quick approval of several property transfers that the state needed to complete for its Peace Bridge plaza expansion.

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Hear state officials discuss circumventing the Common Council’s Real Estate Committee to win quick approval of property transactions connected to the Peace Bridge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4vpPHZnEKk&feature=youtu.be

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She said she suggested combining those Peace Bridge property sales with “a whole lot of transactions” and bringing it directly to the full Council for approval. Otherwise, the transactions would have to go through the Council’s Real Estate Committee, a subcommittee of the Community Development Committee, whose chairman is Golombek.

“We don’t want that,” Masiello said at the meeting.

“Right,” Lehman replied.

State officials said the idea of combining various land transactions for approval was the decision made by the city corporation counsel.

But Golombek said: “It doesn’t surprise me at all that functionaries for state authorities would manipulate the democratic process to their own ends.”

Meanwhile, Ruch said his organization was still analyzing the information it had obtained to determine whether the group has standing to try to prevent the state’s Peace Bridge plans from moving forward.

PEER, which earlier challenged a rubber-stamp approval of an expanded customs house at the Peace Bridge, obtained the recordings of the meeting from the Peace Bridge Authority under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The state accelerated its plans for the plaza ramp project after a dust-up last year in which Cuomo’s appointees to the Peace Bridge Authority tried to fire Ron Rienas, its Canadian executive director, and Cuomo flirted with state legislation that would have disbanded the authority.

Asked about PEER’s complaint on Wednesday, Rienas said: “This isn’t a Peace Bridge Authority project. This is a New York State/Federal Highway Administration project, and we are a cooperating agency. Any questions about procedures or processes would be appropriately answered by those agencies.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com