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A war propagandist from the Bush administration and well-connected Albany lobbyists are working to extract $1.4 billion in subsidies from New Yorkers.

Ralph Wilson Stadium, now called Highmark Stadium, after publicly-funded renovations in 2016 (by Adam Moss, via Flickr)

When Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of a minor fracking company who became billionaires by flipping drilling rights to Royal Dutch Shell, bought the Buffalo Bills in 2014, loyal fans across  Western New York breathed a sigh of relief. The threat of an out-of-touch owner moving the floundering team to a larger and richer media market, which had loomed large for years and which had become all the more dire after the death of original Bills owner Ralph Wilson, seemed gone for good.

“Now, God bless Terry Pegula,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a Western New York campaign event. “Start making the statue of Terry Pegula right now. And make it big.”

Seven years after he was hailed as a local hero for his promise to Buffalo that the Bills and the Sabres NHL franchise (which Pegula also owns) were “here to stay,” Pegula is now using strong-arm tactics to try to extract $1.4 billion in public money from the people of Western New York. On August 1, Pegula floated a proposal for the public to fund 100% of the cost of a new stadium. This proposal was quickly followed by threats to move the team unless the people of New York State paid up.

“Right now the City of Buffalo and the State are going to have to decide if they want a team,” Pegula Sports and Entertainment spokesman Jim Wilkinson told WIVB News. 

Wilkinson – a former member of the White House public relations team that pushed the United States into invading Iraq in 2003 – is one piece in the Pegula family’s political influence operation, which also includes high-powered Albany lobbyists with deep ties to the halls of power and large donations to New York politicians and pressure groups. 

An internal Pegula Sports and Entertainment flowchart leaked to the Athletic’s Tim Graham listed funding the family’s lifestyle – which includes a mansion in Boca Raton, an estate in the Buffalo suburb of East Aurora, as well as a $75 million “superyacht” – as a chief goal of the business. 

Below we profile some of the people and firms working to advance the Pegulas’ agenda by using Western New Yorkers’ devotion to the Buffalo Bills to wring out as much taxpayer subsidy as they can possibly get.

Jim Wilkinson, “spinmeister for the Iraq War”

Jim Wilkinson is leading Pegula Sports and Entertainment’s public relations effort to build a new football stadium in Orchard Park, reportedly with the demand that the people of New York State pay 100% of the estimated $1.4 billion cost.

After both the Buffalo Bills and public officials denied reports that the Pegulas were intimating they would move the team if their demands were not met, Wilkinson articulated a clear, if thinly-veiled, threat in an interview to Buffalo’s CBS affiliate. “Right now the City of Buffalo and the State are going to have to decide if they want a team,” Wilkinson told WIVB’s Marlee Tusks. 

Wilkinson is the chairman and CEO of TrailRunner International, a public relations firm headquartered in Southlake, Texas whose board of advisors includes former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Bill Clinton chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack” McClarty. 

Prior to launching TrailRunner, Wilkinson served in the George W. Bush administration in a number of roles, including as White House deputy communications director and deputy national security advisor for communications. 

During Bush’s tenure as president, Wilkinson played a key role in the government’s propaganda efforts to drum up support for the disastrous US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, for which journalist Ron Suskind called Wilkinson a “spinmeister for the Iraq War.” 

Wilkinson managed the Coalition Information Center, which Newsweek called “the administration’s ‘rapid response’ team, created to wage the propaganda war against bin Laden.”

In the run-up to the Iraq War, Wilkinson was a member of the White House Iraq Group, a cadre of Bush administration officials including Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, and Scooter Libby, which was first convened in 2002 and which peddled an escalating series of lies alleging an Iraqi nuclear threat against the United States in order to justify the 2003 invasion and occupation. Ron Elving, a senior Washington correspondent and editor for NPR, described the White House Iraq Group in 2005, saying: “​​What these people were trying to do was get the country on the page that the White House wanted everybody to believe: that Iraq, with its weapons of mass destruction, was an imminent threat to the United States.”

In his book Where Men Win Glory, John Krakauer alleged that Wilkinson played an instrumental role in creating and disseminating a false narrative about Jessica Lynch, a US Army private who was injured when her Humvee crashed in Iraq, brought to a hospital, and subsequently rescued by special forces. An unnamed official fed the US media a story about Lynch fighting up until the moment of her capture, “emptying her M-16 into Iraqi soldiers” and being stabbed and shot multiple times up until the moment of her capture. This false version of events was the basis for a made for TV movie, Saving Jessica Lynch, before eventually being discredited and subject to a Congressional inquiry. “The story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting is not true,” Lynch told the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform. Wilkinson denied being the source for the false stories and told Congress that he could not explain where the false stories came from.

Now, as the world still suffers the aftermath of the wars that Wilkinson propagandized for, Wilkinson is applying his saber-rattling media tactics to shake down the people of Buffalo and New York State to use public money building a stadium for his billionaire employer.

Well-connected Albany lobbyists

The Pegulas also have a team of well-connected lobbyists to advocate for their interests in Albany, including a former state economic development official and a lobbying firm whose CEO is a major donor to incoming Governor Kathy Hochul.

In 2018, Pegula Sports and Entertainment hired Chris Schoepflin to “oversee development opportunities in the organization’s various properties” and “manage PSE’s government relations with federal, state and local representatives and agencies.” At the time of his hire, Schoepflin was a senior vice president at Empire State Development and a board member at the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. Empire State Development is New York’s primary economic development arm and its subsidiary, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation manages development in Buffalo’s Canalside district, where the Buffalo Sabres play hockey and where the Pegulas have invested heavily in real estate development.

Schoepflin lobbied on a number of issues – including on “future facility needs (arena and stadium)” – for the Pegulas until he stepped down in July 2021.

Since February 2019, Pegula Sports and Entertainment has also contracted with the lobbying firm Ostroff and Associates at $7,500 per month.

Ostroff and Associates is an extremely influential firm. In 2020 it was the fifth ranked lobbying firm in New York State based on total compensation, bringing in $7,290,049 in total compensation. Other major clients include the fossil fuel firms Williams Companies and NextEra Energy, cigarette manufacturer Altria, and Buffalo Billion beneficiary Tesla.

The firm is led by lobbyist Rick Ostroff, a former legislative assistant to Mario Cuomo. 

Critically, Rick Ostroff is one of the top campaign donors to New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who will be sworn in as governor on August 24 after the resignation of current Governor Andrew Cuomo takes effect. As the Buffalo News reported, since 2019 Rick Ostroff has given the legal maximum of $22,600 and his wife Diana Ostroff, also a lobbyist representing Pegula Sports and Entertainment, has given $10,000 to Hochul’s campaign committee.

Since 2019 Richard and Diana Ostroff have also given $13,500 to Buffalo State Senator Tim Kennedy, $2,500 to State Senator Sean Ryan, $1,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, and $4,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Big campaign contributions

The Pegulas have also put their own money into New York State politics, by giving directly to politicians and by funding the political action committee run by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, an influential corporate pressure group.

The top direct recipient of the Pegula family’s campaign cash in New York is outgoing Governor Andrew Cuomo who has received $55,000 in direct contributions from the family. In September 2014, just days after Cuomo suggested building a statue of Terry Pegula at a campaign event, Kim Pegula gave $25,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. The next month, Terry Pegula gave Cuomo $30,000.

The Pegulas have given $12,350 to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown over two donations. Most of this money came in the form of one $12,000 contribution in September 2013 when Brown was running for his third term in office. Brown received another $350 in December 2019.

In September 2013, Terry Pegula gave $250 to State Senator Tim Kennedy and in September 2019, Pegula Sports and Entertainment gave $250 to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Beyond their direct contributions to politicians, the Pegulas have also contributed heavily to the Committee for Economic Growth, the political action comm​​ittee run by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is an influential corporate lobbying organization backed by elite business interests in Western New York. Pegula Sports and Entertainment is a Chairman’s Circle member of the partnership, the highest membership level, and PSE executive vice president Ron Raccuia sits on the BNP board of directors.

Since 2014, Pegula corporate entities have contributed at least $22,500 to the Committee for Economic Growth, giving $15,000 through Hockey Western New York LLC and $7,500 through Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

The Committee for Economic Growth channels its donations to local and statewide politicians. The top five recipients of money from the Committee for Economic Growth since the Pegulas began funding the PAC in 2014 are:

  • Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown: $26,750
  • Mark Grisanti, a judge and former state senator: $16,900
  • The New York Senate Republican Committee: $15,000
  • State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt: $12,750 
  • State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: $11,050

Other important recipients of money through the Committee for Economic Growth include the secretive 43×79 PAC ($10,900), former State Senator and current Congressman Chris Jacobs ($8,500), State Senator Tim Kennedy ($​​7,500), and current Lieutenant Governor and incoming Governor Kathy Hochul ($3,500).

Ultimately, a new Buffalo Bills stadium will in all likelihood be financed with hundreds of millions of public dollars. The negotiations, planning, construction, and operation of a new major league sports facility will be a benefit for a broad swath of the regional elite. Local elected officials have already expressed support for using public money to build a new facility. Most importantly, the Bills are an extremely important part of regional identity, arguably to a greater degree than other teams are to their cities, and the general public supports subsidizing a new stadium. No one wants to see the Bills leave, especially just as they have finally become playoff contenders again.

Capitalizing on the central role of Bills, and to a lesser degree the Sabres, in local culture has been key to the Pegula family’s various business interests in Buffalo, and it has paid off well for them. Western New Yorkers have dutifully showed up to the games, bought the Pegulas’ “One Buffalo” branded merchandise, bought the “One Buffalo” licensed products from Southern Tier Brewery and Perry’s Ice Cream, and perhaps even bought the team merchandise designed by Kelly and Matt Pegula. Since buying the Bills, the team’s valuation has grown to $2.27 billion.

When they bought the teams, the Pegulas marketed themselves as the saviors of professional sports in Buffalo, and, in a way, saviors of Buffalo itself. “Welcome to Pegulaville” boasted a sign placed along the highway in front of the “Welcome to Buffalo” sign.

Now the Pegulas’ team of lobbyists and Iraq War propagandist public relations consultant are using Western New York’s devotion to the Buffalo Bills to strong-arm taxpayers – still recovering from the economic shock of a prolonged pandemic – into spending as much money as possible on a stadium that will be used primarily for the Boca Raton billionaires’ private profit.