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Investigative Post: Buffalo State's deal with Greenleaf raises red flags

Dan Telvock

Greenleaf Development has a less-than-stellar reputation as a landlord. But that didn’t stop SUNY Buffalo State from entering into an exclusive agreement that helped the company build off-campus housing to accommodate students. The deal prohibits seniors from living in the college's dorms in an effort to fill Greenleaf’s development. One good government advocate says the deal raises red flags.

Buffalo State has a student housing shortage. It’s so bad that the college spent $2.5 million over the past two years to house students at neighboring schools. 

To fill the demand, the college struck a deal with private develop, Jim Swiezy and his Greenleaf Development and Construction, ?that made it easier for him to build dorm-style housing for 318 students across the street from the campus on Grant Street. Campus Walk One is scheduled to open this fall.

Investigative Post reported 15 months ago about Greenleaf’s unsavory reputation. The company has been prosecuted in Housing Court at least 20 times for code violations. Tenants, including Buffalo State students, complained of water leaking from ceilings? ?and apartments lacking sufficient heat. Greenleaf had a reputation of refusing to return security deposits, even when apartments were left in good condition.

“They don’t have the best reputation. Also if you do a Google search you’ll see that there are a lot of complaints against Greenleaf,” said Terron Grant, the president of the Student Government Association.

Yet this is the landlord Buff State officials chose to do business with to alleviate its on-campus housing shortage.

The agreement bars seniors for four years from living on campus unless Greenleaf’s development is fully leased. Emails Investigative Post obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law reveal that Swiezy told a Buffalo State official that in order for him to secure financing, he needed a guarantee that the college would steer students to his development. That means as many as 240 seniors will be looking for housing this fall.

“I believe students are upset about the fact that once they reach senior level they are basically removed off campus,” Grant said. “What ever happened to senior priority?”

Sweizy cut the deal with Michael LeVine, the college’s vice president for finance and management?. ?Emails show that LeVine did not maintain an arms-length relationship while negotiating with Swiezy. Their chummy relationship morphed into this agreement that facilitated the construction of the project without competitive proposals or independent review by the state comptroller. LeVine maintains the college did nothing wrong.

Credit Dan Telvock
Michael LeVine, Buffalo State's vice president for finance and management, maintains the college did nothing wrong.

When Investigative Post asked him why not open the process up for competitive proposals, Levine responded, “We were not looking to have student housing other than right around the campus.”

The SUNY system has rules that govern how colleges do business with private companies. In general, SUNY schools are supposed to use competitive bidding to safeguard against favoritism and fraud. But the college said these rules didn’t apply because they didn’t purchase anything.

While no money changed hands, a Buffalo State foundation and Greenleaf exchanged real estate worth nearly $1 million and the agreement could provide Greenleaf with up to $800,000 in rents for the first four years the housing complex is open. Swiezy refused interview requests for this story. 

John Kaehny, a good government advocate with ReInvent Albany, said the deal raises red flags. 

“This contract needs to be stopped and reviewed by the Comptroller’s Office and probably the state Attorney General should be looking at potential conflicts of interest here and violations of other state laws in this deal," said Kaehny.

Buffalo State chose to deal exclusively with Greenleaf even though another company had plans to build a larger housing complex within walking distance of the college that also opens this fall. But school officials refused to deal with them.

Instead, LeVine worked to advance the Greenleaf project. Emails show he visited banks with Swiezy to help him obtain a loan. He met with city officials to support the project. LeVine even lent the college’s PR staff to Greenleaf to help write press releases for the project’s groundbreaking. During this time, Swiezy had donated at least $15,000 to college scholarship funds, although the college has refused to provide the full amount. He also gave LeVine’s golf team a set of clubs as a gift.

Investigative Post asked LeVine whether it was appropriate to offer the college’s PR staff to Greenleaf for press releases.

“This was a groundbreaking for a campus supported project,” replied LeVine. “It was something we wanted to promote.”

Investigative Post also asked whether it was appropriate to accept golf clubs.

“Looking back on it, it really was not appropriate that we would have accepted any kind of gift,” LeVine said.

LeVine said he reimbursed Swiezy for the golf clubs, but only after Investigative Post had obtained his emails that revealed he received them.

Dan Telvock covers the environment for Investigative Post.