Editorial from the Albany Times Union


Put it in writing, governor

Growing up from children to adults, and sometimes in growing from adults into genuinely mature individuals, we learn there’s a difference between what we can do and what we should do.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo can, within the letter of the law, designate anyone he wants under the Moreland Act to “examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission of the state.” He doesn’t have to put a thing in writing. He can offer the bureaucratic equivalent of the hackneyed refrain, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

Which is pretty much the ad hoc, opaque way in which the governor is approaching the serious business of investigating possible wrongdoing in his own administration. There’s no executive order, no mission statement, no parameters, no contract. There’s not even a publicly stated rate of pay for his hand-picked investigator, who was assigned, from what the governor says, to look into what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara already was looking into – which seems so far to be improper lobbying and conflicts of interest involving the Buffalo Billion and upstate nanotech economic development initiatives, connected to SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany.

In fact, it was only after probing by the Times Union’s Casey Seiler that we learned from the governor that the investigator, Bart Schwartz, a former chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney’s office, was working under the authority of the Moreland Act. That gives him the power to issue subpoenas, examine people under oath, and require the production of any books or papers he deems relevant.

For why this matters, consider Mr. Cuomo’s last exercise of the Moreland Act. The governor created a Moreland commission by executive order to look into public corruption, declared that it could investigate whomever and whatever it chose, including himself, and then shut it down, saying it had achieved its real (though unstated) goal of getting the Legislature to pass some ethics reforms. The commission had also started looking at some of his own campaign contributors; the governor then insisted it could not investigate him, since he was the one who appointed it.

If we ended up with such a mess when things were in writing, imagine the chaos we could see with nothing on paper.

Mr. Cuomo owes it to the public, and to the credibility of the institution of government, to do this properly and transparently. To make clear, in writing, what Mr. Schwartz will be paid, what his duties and power are, what limits he is under, whether he will make any formal reports of his findings and whether they’ll be public. Since it is Mr. Cuomo’s administration that’s under investigation here, the public should also be clear on whether Mr. Schwartz is working in the public’s interest or the governor’s.

Mr. Cuomo can, of course, do none of that. He can be as opaque as he wants. But he shouldn’t. And he should know that.

Memo to Albany: First, Lock the Front Door and the Vault.

Let’s say you managed a bank that gets looted every night by burglars who trundle loads of cash through the unlocked front door and open vault. You would probably put a strong new lock on the front door, make sure the vault was closed tight, and hire a watchman. But that’s not how it works in Albany, where the governor and the legislature have just nailed shut the cat door to the basement.

Is it progress? Sure, especially if your bank is being robbed by cats. Our bank is not. Our problem in New York State is the exchange of huge political contributions in exchange for huge political favors and state contracts. This “pay to play” is usually completely legal. Yes, it is completely legal in New York for a person doing business with the state to give the governor $250K worth of campaign contributions using Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) and then get an enormous state contract. Indeed, this is exactly what companies at the center of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation, like COR Development, LP Ciminelli, and Columbia Development have done. In their case, the issue is whether government officials rigged bids so these companies would win – which is not legal.

In New York City, people doing business with the city can give a maximum of $400 to mayoral candidates, and contributions from LLCs and corporations are banned. Despite the recent conviction of the leaders of both houses of the legislature and opinion polls showing overwhelming numbers of New Yorkers believe the state is corrupt, this common sense approach is deemed a “non-starter” or “fantasy” in Albany. Then again, maybe we can find a new name for “pay to play reform” laws: it worked for online gambling, er, Daily Fantasy Sports, which just overwhelmingly passed the legislature.


Transparency Groups Oppose Bill Weakening FOIL

Reaction to Governor Cuomo’s June 8, 2016 Speech at Fordham Law School On Independent Expenditures

Curbing Independent Expenditures and the Governor’s Upstate Economic Development Scandal

We support the governor’s call for curbing Independent Expenditures – they are as bad as he says. But the governor also needs to champion reforms that directly address the pay to play and conflict of interest engulfing his own Upstate economic development programs.

Independent expenditures are corrosive to our democracy, but they played no role in the Silver or Skelos’ corruption capers, and played no role in the deals involving state controlled non-profits, the governor’s top aides and some of his biggest donors in Central and Western New York.

Headline after headline have pointed out that some of the governor’s largest campaign contributors in Central and Western New York have gotten hundreds of millions in state contracts. At a minimum, this creates the perception of pay to play and is contrary to the governor’s stated goal of restoring confidence in government. It is a common sense measure to restrict the campaign contributions of businesses doing business with the state. In New York City, campaign contributions from people doing business with the city are sharply restricted, as are contributions from LLCs. In the state, there are no doing business (pay to play) restrictions, and millions of dollars of political donations to the governor and top legislative leaders are made using LLCs.

It is highly ironic that in the context of Independent of Expenditures, the governor mentioned some practices at the center of the probes into his Upstate economic development programs. The governor decried the use of opaque and unaccountable non-profit organizations to hide political donors. But his administration has used state controlled non-profits like Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, Fuller Road Management Corporation, SUNY Research Foundation and even SUNY Polytechnic because they are not subject to the same bidding, conflict of interest or transparency rules as state authorities and agencies.

Also ironic the governor specifically identifying the “Sharing of office space and non-public information” to show collusion between Independent Expenditures and candidates. People central to the Upstate economic development probe are alleged to have done both. Todd R. Howe, EYP and Columbia Development all had office space in a SUNY Polytechnic building – a state owned building. Columbia Development purchased land at the site of a planned state project, before that project was publicly announced.

We support measures to curb Independent Expenditures, but call on the governor to feel the same urgency to end the apparent pay to play and conflict of interest that has put billions of dollars in public subsidies in question.

“Sources say,” these organizations have been subpoenaed by Bharara

As reported by Newsday, “sources say” the following organizations have been subpoenaed as part of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District’s probe into conflict of interest and potential bid rigging within the state economic development system. This list is probably not complete.

  • LPCiminelli, a Buffalo-based developer
  • SolarCity, a solar panel company
  • Carnegie Management, a NYC-based real-estate company
  • Center Armory Associates, a Syracuse real-estate and development company
  • CHA, an Albany-area engineering firm
  • Columbia Development, an Albany-area developer
  • Competitive Power Ventures, a Maryland-based power-plant company
  • Conifer Realty, a Rochester real-estate and development company
  • COR Development, a Syracuse developer
  • Hueber-Breuer Construction, a Syracuse construction company
  • Norstar Development USA, a Buffalo developer that also managed another company, Swan Street Lofts LP, named in a subpoena
  • Pemco Group, a Syracuse real-estate company
  • Potomac Strategies, a Maryland lobby and strategy firm
  • Pyramid Netword Services, a Syracuse telecommunications systems company
  • STV Group, a NYC engineering and architectural firm
  • Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna/W.O.H. Solutions, a Albany law firm and lobbying subsidiary
  • 3Gi Terminals, a company formed to develop Syracuse’s harbor
  • Empire State Development Corp.
  • New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
  • NYS Department of Public Service (energy and utility regulator)
  • State University of New York Polytechnic Institute