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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

For Univera, and Excellus, it's deja vu all over again in news releases

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has a consistent corporate message across its 39-county footprint in Upstate New York, where it does business in Western New York as Univera Healthcare and under the Blues' brand in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and the Southern Tier.

How consistent? A news release sent out under the Univera name here --- and the Excellus name in Rochester, Syracuse and Utica --- was almost exactly the same in each community.

The release, and accompanying report, detailed the high rate of insurance coverage in Upstate New York --- one of the company's periodic, data-rich reports on topics related to health care and insurance.

Each community's release included the same sentences, word for word. The same data used in the same order. The same quotes from a company executive.

Why do we say "almost" identical? Because the company used the same quotes but attributed them to a different executive in each market.

Here's an example: “From a taxpayer’s perspective, job-based health insurance is preferable to government-based coverage, because it costs taxpayers less. We have 371,000 more upstate New Yorkers covered due to job-based benefits than we’d have if we were at the national rate for employer-based coverage.”

In Buffalo, Univera President Art Wingerter said that. In Rochester, the corporate headquarters, Excellus CEO Christopher Booth said it. In Utica, Excellus Regional President Eve Van de Wal made this observation. And in Syracuse, Dr. Arthur Vercillo, Excellus' regional president there, made the comment.

Now, they didn't all magically say the same thing to the public-relations rep who wrote the news release.

Excellus/Univera is far from the only company that puts a canned quote in a release.

So why does Excellus/Univera do that?

The Buffalo-area Univera spokesman, Peter Kates, said it's one company that does business under two names, and when it has news to announce it does so under the brand name that makes the most sense for each part of its coverage area.

As for the word-for-word quotes, Kates said, "It's a company statement attributed to the local leader to localize it," he said.

---Stephen T. Watson


Your guide to Prospectus 2014


Prospectus 2014

Banking & Finance

Real Estate

Health Care

Employment & Education

Automotive & Retailing

Survey: Quality, not price, drives workers' health insurance choices

The quality of coverage is more a more important factor than the cost of that coverage for employees making decisions about their health insurance, according to a survey by Liazon Corp., the Buffalo-based health-benefits exchange company.

Fifty-three percent of the employees surveyed said they selected plans that provided the proper level of coverage, more than twice the 23 percent who said they chose plans that promised lower costs.

They are the key findings of an online survey of employees and employers that use Liazon's Bright Choices exchange, an online marketplace designed to help employers save money on health care costs and set predictable budgets while giving consumers more choices.

The survey also found that 63 percent of employees who shopped for insurance on the Bright Choices exchange felt more aware of the costs of their health care than before using the exchange, and 60 percent felt more engaged in decisions about their medical care.

The survey was conducted last summer by Phoenix Marketing International on behalf of Liazon, which released the results Tuesday.

---Stephen T. Watson

On eve of Metrodome roof deflation, a look back at history of roof built by Amherst company

Amherst's Birdair was dispatched to Minneapolis to rebuild the Metrodome's roof after its collapse in 2010. (Associated Press file photo)

With the Metrodome roof set to be deflated Saturday with the Twins and Vikings having moved (or moving) on to new facilities, here is a look back at the 2010 roof collapse in which the Amherst-based company that built the roof, Birdair, had to repair it after heavy snowfall in the Midwest:

Here is a Minneapolis-based Star Tribune article earlier this week, including a video with a last look inside the dome.

Quiet diplomacy surrounds M&T's Cuban accounts

There’s some intrigue involving M&T Bank Corp. and its banking relationship with diplomatic missions in the United States, including Cuba’s. And the issue could resurface a month from now.

To review, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 26 said it was suspending consular services in the United States – such as visa and passport applications – because it said M&T was closing its bank accounts. The Cuban officials said M&T would “no longer provide banking services” to foreign missions and had given notice to that effect back on July 12.

The Cuban officials said they were having trouble finding a replacement bank, even with the U.S. State Department’s help. The story attracted national media attention because of the potential impact on travelers between the United States and Cuba, and the history of political tensions between the two countries.

On Dec. 9 – about two weeks after the announcement – Cuban officials said M&T had provided notice on Dec. 6 of a deadline extension. The Cuban officials said the bank specified it “will continue receiving deposits from consular services” until Feb. 17, and would not close the accounts until March 1. A reason for the extension was not given.

The Cuban officials said the extension allowed them to resume – at least temporarily – providing consular services. But its long-term problem of finding another bank remains, and a Miami Herald story in early December suggested the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Cuba, could be impacted if the problem was not resolved.

The deadline extension raised some interesting questions that The Buffalo News has been trying to answer, without success:
•How did Buffalo-based M&T come to have business with diplomatic missions in the United States in the first place, and how many other countries’ missions was it providing services to? M&T has declined to talk about that line of business in general, or the Cuba matter in particular.

•What prompted M&T to extend its deadline for closing the Cuban accounts, after the announcement by the Cuban officials in late November? The State Department acknowledged it has been trying to help the Cuban officials line up a new bank. But a State Department spokeswoman did not answer a specific question about whether the department played a role in M&T’s decision to grant the extension.

Cuban officials in Washington have not responded to requests to comment on this issue. The last time they posted a message on their website about their efforts to line up a new bank was Dec. 9.
Experts say banks in general probably are wary of doing business with foreign missions, since they are under greater pressure to combat money laundering. Under those circumstances, it has been hard to find another bank willing to take M&T’s place for the Cuban Interests Section.

And Cuba is a sensitive subject for U.S. businesses, given U.S. policy toward the island nation and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror (along with Syria, Sudan and Iran).

-- Matt Glynn

Stock tables: 2013 Market in Review

View a detailed breakdown of the year-end stock tables.

For health insurance that kicks in Jan. 1, exchange deadline looms

New Yorkers who don't have health insurance, or who have coverage that expires at the end of the month, have one more week to sign up for insurance on the NY State of Health exchange that kicks in Jan. 1.

The deadline to sign up on the state exchange for insurance that takes effect at the start of 2014 originally was set for Friday but was moved to Dec. 23 to give people more time to get through the enrollment process.

State officials have praised the performance of website for the exchange, which has enrolled 134,622 New Yorkers as of 9 a.m. today. Of those, 95,196 have enrolled in a private insurance plan and 39,426 qualified for Medicaid. Another 228,636 people have finished the application process but still must select a plan in which to enroll, according to the state.

State Department of Health officials have yet to release a breakdown of the enrollment data by region, by insurer or by demographic details, so it's hard to know what to make of the enrollment number. Nor have they given any indication when they will be able to release this additional information.

---Stephen T. Watson

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