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The Director's Cut
by Buck Quigley
On May 13, one of my shadowy informants pointed out that the Chronicle of Higher Education recently published salary information on university presidents. The source was puzzled to see that UB President Satish Tripathi’s salary had apparently gone down since his inauguration in 2011. It was a slow news day around the office, so I sent off a couple of emails. One went to the Chronicle, and one went to the communications office for the State University of New York in Albany.
The Chronicle got back to me the same day, explaining via email that upon checking with UB, “the union that President Tripathi belongs to had unpaid furlough days during that year. So while his full-year salary (from the university’s state funds) is $385,000, as you pointed out, he was actually paid $376,957 in FY 2012. Which brought his overall salary down to the number that we reported: $641,957.”
I replied that I was unaware Tripathi was a union man. “That was the response I got from the university. Please contact them if you have further questions about his compensation,” the Chronicle reporter shot back.
Pulling out the bottle of rotgut I keep in my desk drawer for just such emergencies, I poured three fingers into my cup and washed it down, along with some bitter coffee grounds. “Not again,” I told myself. “You are not going to get distracted looking into discrepancies at UB.” I put it out of my mind, and figured I’d wait for a response from the SUNY spokespeople.
Then, on May 21, I received an email from UB spokesman Joe Brennan. The SUNY communications office in Albany had asked him to respond to my request to them. “[T]he difference is due to the state’s ‘deficit reduction plan,’ which required management-confidential employees to take unpaid furlough days.” Brennan wrote, explaining the lower state portion of Tripathi’s overall salary, which includes $385,000 from the state, plus a combined $265,000 from the UB Foundation and the SUNY Research Foundation, plus a car, plus the presidential mansion 889 Lebrun in Amherst.
I thanked Brennan, and asked him what kind of car Tripathi gets as part of his compensation. Turns out his package grants him the use of a leased vehicle, in this case a Lexus.
I also sent along a copy of a 2010 990 tax form for a particular 501c3 UB foundation enigmatically named FNUB. On page 9 of that form, it shows that the State of New York paid $96,000 rent to FNUB—the entity that owns 889 Lebrun. That works out to $8,000 per month. Brennan’s email stated that SUNY requires the president to live there. The website Zillow.com says the property last sold in June 2004 for $675,000 and is estimated to be worth $903,692 today. Rent is estimated at $1,799/month; mortgage estimate is $3,279/month. So it looks like FNUB is getting a mighty fine rate from the state.
Then, I glanced back at the FNUB 990, and noticed something I hadn’t seen before. On page 8, in the section that lists the independent contractors with whom FNUB does business in amounts larger than $100,000, I saw that a company called R&P Oak Hill Development, LLC, had been paid $1,220,110 for “building improvements.” I quickly contacted one of my go-to informants—let’s call her “Firefox”—and learned that one of the partners at the firm is Gary Bichler.
The name rang a bell. Tapping my fingers on the desk as I racked my addled brain, I knocked the FNUB 990 onto the floor. As I bent to pick it up, I saw there, on page 7, where the names of the officers, directors, trustees, key employees, and highest compensated employees are listed—the name Gary M. Bichler.
This meant that Bichler was a director of FNUB the year that his company, R&P Oak Hill Development, LLC, received a $1.2 million dollar contract from FNUB to execute building improvements.
I pointed this out to Brennan on Tuesday, and he replied that he would look into it.
I decided to go ahead and reach out to Bichler on his cell phone number, which a little birdy had whispered into my ear. When he answered, I explained who I was and asked if there was a simple explanation for this appearance of impropriety.
“Yes, we were contractor, and yes, I am currently a proud member of the foundation,” Bichler said. “So what I would think is if you wanted to check with Ed Schneider—Ed is the executive director of the foundation—because there’s always a protocol for everything like that and I’m certain that we followed all the protocols. But I would think that any comment would best come directly from Ed at the foundation. So that’s where I would direct you.”
Would he have recused himself from an FNUB board vote to award the job to his own company?
“Again, what I would say is there’s a protocol and we followed the protocol. And Ed would give you the exact details of the protocol. He’s usually available so feel free to give him a call, and if you don’t get a hold of him, let me know.”
I picked up the blower and made a call out to the UB Foundation office in the Center for Tomorrow on the Amherst campus. The secretary answered, and told me that Ed Schneider was at lunch. I left a detailed message explaining that Bichler had referred me to him, and asking about the $1.2 million R&P Oak Hill contract with FNUB in 2010. I requested he call me back and left my number twice.
Then I called Bichler back. He didn’t answer, so I left him a message saying that I’d left Schneider a message to call me back, and I wondered if he could recall what building improvements the $1.2 million went toward in 2010.
I didn’t hear back from Bichler or Schneider. Then, at deadline, I received an email from Brennan, stating the following:
R&P Oak Hill was selected to conduct renovations in the UB Downtown Gateway building (formerly the M. Wile factory). The firm was chosen after a competitive bidding process. It was the lowest-cost bidder.
The bidding process was managed by the University’s offices of Capital Planning and Facilities Planning and Design. No UB Foundation/FNUB staff or board members were involved in the selection process. The role of the FNUB board was to only authorize the expenditure, not to select the firm.
I checked with the UB Foundation management, and they assured me that Mr. Bichler recused himself from the vote on this contract. That’s standard practice under foundation policy for any potential conflicts of interest.
I then sent an email to Brennan requesting access to documents showing the bidding process, and reached into my desk drawer for the bottle of rotgut.blog comments powered by Disqus
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