Cuomo stonewalling goes from bad to worse

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

I’ve documented – more than once – efforts by the Cuomo administration to obstruct our reporting of the Buffalo Billion. But the tactics employed by the Cuomo crowd during the course of Charlotte Keith’s reporting of her story on the lack of diversity at the SolarCity construction site represent a new low.

Once again, state officials refused to grant interviews, but this time they came up with a novel reason.

Peter Cutler, the temperamental spokesman for the Buffalo office of the Empire State Development Corp., objected to who Charlotte was interviewing for her story. She had the audacity to talk to contractors, construction workers, union leaders and community members.

Her outreach to black construction workers appears to have set him off.

“If you want to try to elicit info from others, go ahead. But you and I both know anecdotal info is often unreliable and biased,” Cutler wrote me in a terse email on Sept. 4.

Cutler went on to say that because Charlotte was speaking to people he disapproved of, he would not make state officials available for interviews. In the aforementioned email Cutler said he “had two people with experience and knowledge of the info Charlotte was researching (ready) to speak with her on background (I might’ve also actually had someone to go on-the-record, too). ”

But then Charlotte did what reporters do – she interviewed people without clearing them with the government. (GASP!)

For committing this act of Reporting 101, Charlotte was treated to a hostile phone call from Cutler in which he lectured her about ethics and professionalism before slamming down the phone.

Ah, yes, professionalism, Peter.

Unfortunately, the governor isn’t the only public official who employs press liaisons who believe reporters should only talk to government sources in researching their stories. Back in July, Charlotte was lectured by Peter Anderson, press secretary to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, after he learned she had interviewed current and former caseworkers in Child Protective Services for a story about the department’s failure to investigate child abuse complaints in a timely fashion.

These interviews, he said in a July 7 email to Charlotte, were “not appropriate.” She was further informed that asking questions of county employees outside of work amounts to an invasion of privacy. (Never mind that more than a dozen current and former employees gladly spoke to Charlotte.)

“In the future, please refrain from approaching employees and direct your inquiries to the commissioner’s office for response,” Anderson emailed Charlotte.

To underscore the county’s position, Charlotte, prior to an on-camera interview, was scolded by a small group of bureaucrats, including a ranking county attorney, about going beyond official channels in researching her story.

To complete the trifecta of intimidation, Kevin Schuler, spokesman for LPCiminelli, went off on Charlotte at the conclusion of a recent interview when she asked him questions he had told her earlier he did not want to answer.

Questions like: “How much is your company getting paid in public funds to manage the SolarCity project?”

Instead of an answer, she got another lecture about journalism ethics.

Now, every reporter worth their salt goes through episodes like what Charlotte has experienced. But three times in three months leaves me wondering whether she’d be putting up with this guff if she wasn’t a 23-year-old female.

On second thought, I don’t wonder.

Much like how they’ve refused to grant interviews, the Cuomo administration has also dragged its feet in providing public records we requested under the state Freedom of Information Law. Like the interviews, they’ve turned the process on its head.

The FOI Law gives the government five business days to acknowledge receipt of a request and up to an additional 20 to produce the records or deny the request. If the government believes more time is necessary, it must explain the reason for the delay and establish a reasonable deadline for producing the records.

Empire State Development Corp. was having none of this in responding to FOI requests Charlotte and I submitted in August. All we got was delay, delay, delay, along with an email from Cutler that informed me: “The onus is not on me to meet your deadlines – I have no deadlines.”

So we filed an appeal, claiming the failure to provide the records in a timely fashion, absent an explanation for the delay or a deadline for providing them, amounted to an effective denial of our request. Under the law, ESD had 10 business days to either reject our appeal or turn over the documents.

ESD did neither.

Instead, its lawyers proclaimed the appeal premature and refused to make a determination. As for why it’s taking so long to provide the records, ESD lawyers essentially said “We’re busy, really busy.”

Too busy to follow the law, I guess.

The records we are seeking include updated employment figures at the SolarCity construction project. Nothing exotic or difficult to locate and forward. And nothing ESD hasn’t provided in the past – after months of delay, of course.

As with refusing interviews, withholding documents represents an attempt to make it harder for reporters to do their jobs to inform the public. We are trying to make the spending of $1 billion of public money transparent, and Cuomo and Co. are clearly not on board.

I documented their recalcitrance in December and March, before finally having to sue a state development agency in May. I guess we’ll have to keep doing so until the governor accepts the rule of law and embraces the notion of the public’s right to know.

In the meantime, you go, Preet.