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More about M&T, Cuba and the State Department

Cuba has (again) stopped providing consular services in Washington, D.C., and at its mission to the United Nations, saying it was unable to find a substitute for Buffalo-based M&T Bank, which is closing the Cubans' accounts as of March 1.

Noel C. Clay, a State Department spokesman, answered some questions The Buffalo News had about the Cubans' problem with finding a new bank. It's a story which came to light last November and has received some media attention in other cities, such as Miami. Clay said of the Cuban government's decision to suspend consular services:

"We are disappointed in this action, given that we had helped the Mission identify a workable solution to its consular fee processing needs with ample time for its implementation," Clay said. "That the Cuban Interests Section has not effectively pursued this option will result in hardship to Cuban and U.S. citizen travelers alike."

Clay did not specify what the "workable solution" was.

M&T has not commented on its banking relationship with the Cuban Interests Section or other diplomatic missions, or how it entered into that business to start with. But Clay offered this detail, without describing M&T by name:

"The decision to close its missions’ accounts was a business decision by its current bank, which we understand decided several years ago to discontinue banking diplomatic missions."

The idea that M&T had made its decision ending business with diplomatic missions as long as "several years ago" was not previously known.

"Cuba’s situation is not unique,"Clay said. "A number of banks have decided to cease providing banking services to diplomatic missions. These banks made the decision in light of multiple factors, and the U.S. government cannot compel a private bank to provide services to a diplomatic mission."

Clay said the State Department has helped the Cubans reach out to "numerous banks" -- some published reports have put the number at 50 -- and that M&T was cooperative in the effort. But it seems this is one customer no other U.S. bank is eager to claim.

-- Matt Glynn


Paula Deen addresses racism scandal during local appearance

PaulaYOLOEmbattled celebrity chef Paula Deen was in Williamsville this weekend, hosting a cooking demonstration for a near-capacity crowd of 1,100 enthusiastic fans at Samuel's Grande Manor. After entering to a standing ovation, Deen addressed the scandal that erupted last year when it came out that she had used racial slurs. The reaction left her with a cancelled Food Network TV show and caused several retailers such as Home Depot and Walmart to drop her line of cookware.

“I have so many friends here, so many people who believe in me. My partners who never quit believing in me, who knew who I was and were steadfast in your love for me. Thank y’all," Deen said.

At one point, Deen singled out Savino Nanula, the Tops Friendly Markets founder and a partner in her Paula Deen Foods venture, who was sitting in the front row.

"Isn't that right, Nino?" she said, before kissing the top of his head. The crowd laughed and applauded.

She went on to address the scandal directly:

“I had a rough year. My family had a rough year. My partners had a rough year. But we all learned a lot.

In June, when people were saying terrible things about me that were not true, it was heartbreaking. But I told my family, don’t ask me how I know this, but God’s arms are wrapped all around us. We’re gonna be all right. And we’re gonna be better than we ever were.

You’ve got to go down in the valley to enjoy the days when you’re on the peak of that mountain overlooking everything. You’ve got to have those days.

I said I’m not gonna talk about that. And what do I do? First thing I do is come out here and talk about it.

I just want you all to know I cannot ignore it and I can’t go without saying that we are not looking back anymore, we’re only looking to the future and with a family like the Nanulas that have loved me unconditionally and who have believed in me. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I’ve made so many new friends here in Buffalo."

Deen arrived in town Thursday afternoon, stopping in Rochester to visit a Wegmans store, then appearing at Dash's Markets to promote her Springer Mountain Farms chicken.

She also visited Landies Candies, the Buffalo company that makes her Paula Deen Foods sugar-free chocolate, handmaking a batch of chocolate herself. She cut the ribbon on her Paula Deen Foods retail showroom in Clarence Saturday before her appearance at Samuel's Grande Manor.


---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

Hamburg estate for sale: Only $1.75 million

For sale: 16,000 square feet of home on six acres of landscaped grounds, with almost every amenity imaginable.

One of the region's biggest estates -- known for being part of the biggest residential real estate deal in Erie County history -- is back on the market but for 40 percent less than the last time it sold.

That was when Michael Wilson, a disgraced former self-proclaimed financier from Cleveland, bought the estate from Sorrento Cheese heir John Russo for $3 million, and an adjacent 17,000-square-foot office property for another $3.3 million - $6.3 million in all.

Wilson, who is in his mid-20s now, was indicted for a scheme to defraud investors of more than $8 million through his New Frontier and Phantom Holdings companies. He lured investors into financial instruments with complex names that promised high returns but he actually spent the money on his homes, cars, artwork and other luxuries.

Wilson, who now faces criminal charges of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, financed the property purchases with a mortgage from Russo, who later foreclosed and reclaimed both properties.

The enormous Tudor-style mansion at 6523 Boston State Road in Hamburg features six bedrooms, seven full-bathrooms and four half-bathrooms, plus a dining room, family room, kitchen and living room. For pleasure, it also offers an indoor pool with a brick poolside bar, plus a hot tub and a solarium.

Outside, it's surrounded by manicured lawns, ponds, lush gardens and an abundance of trees, all on private grounds. The central pond is marked by a fountain in the center. Built in 1992, it's about a half-mile from the Village of Hamburg.

It's currently on the market for a meager $1.75 million -- reduced from more than $2 million. "It's a fabulous home at a good price," said George C. Hamberger of RealtyUSA, a commercial real estate broker who handled the listing for Russo, a friend, for a year, until the end of December. "John keeps the home in like-new condition so it blows people away when they see it."

Hamberger said Russo still wants to sell the home, but may wait until the spring to renew the listing. The adjacent office property is now home to the Hamburg Brewing Co., a new business venture by Russo and his son.

-- Jonathan D. Epstein