Cuomo’s M.O. enables corruption

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

One Albany insider told The Buffalo News over the weekend that “everyone is literally flabbergasted” at the turn of events in the federal probe of what can safely be termed the “embattled” Buffalo Billion program. I suppose the spectacle of Cuomo insiders turning on each other as the governor scrambles into damage control mode is a bit jarring. But no one who has been paying attention to Cuomo’s governing style in general, and his administration’s management of the Buffalo Billion program in particular, should be the least bit surprised.

In short, the Cuomo crowd is obsessed with secrecy and operates with the mistaken notion that the rules don’t apply to them. The governor may or may not have knowledge of the supposed misdeeds of some of his associates, but he has most certainly created an environment that’s made state government susceptible to official misconduct.

Steve Brown of WGRZ interviews Jim Heaney on Buffalo Billion probe.

If that’s not bad enough, Cuomo has moved aggressively to shift much of the state’s spending on economic development across upstate into the shadows.

He exported the model developed by Alain Kaloyeros to build a nanotech sector in Albany first to Buffalo and later to Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and, most recently, Dunkirk. One part of the model involves the state fronting the cost of building and equipping plants for private companies. One can debate the merits of that approach.

Second part of Brown/Heaney interview.

But the other half of the equation is looking more and more like a prescription for the kind of corruption the feds are investigating. Cuomo has shifted responsibility for developing big-ticket projects upstate away from Empire State Development to the Kaloyeros domain. This involves funneling hundreds of millions of state dollars through non-profit development corporations controlled by Kaloyeros that have maintained they are private entities, exempt from transparency measures such as the FOI and Open Meetings laws. And unlike state agencies, their contracts aren’t subject to review by the State Comptroller’s office.

Cuomo has been made well aware of the entities’ furtiveness; his response has been to call Kaloyeros “the closest thing to a genius I have ever worked with” and expand his empire.

Couple this with the way Cuomo otherwise conducts state business and you begin to understand why the U.S. Attorney is investigating.

Cuomo is constantly trying to cover his tracks. The governor and his lieutenants use BlackBerrys to communicate whenever possible so as to not leave behind an electronic record, such as emails, that could be obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law.

I got a taste of a variation of this subterfuge soon after Cuomo appointed Sam Hoyt to a senior post with Empire State Development. I met Sam for lunch and, upon entering the restaurant, he placed two cell phones on the table. I asked him what that was about. One phone, he explained, was government-issued for use on official business. The other one was his personal phone, used to conduct political business. Guess which one is used more often, and exempt from FOI requests?

Give a listen: Heaney discusses federal probe on WBFO

The practice I find most offensive is the administration’s foot-dragging when citizens and reporters file requests under the Freedom of Information Law. Requests that ought to take days to fulfill instead take months and sometimes, as was the case a year ago when Investigative Post and WGRZ filed suit, require legal action.

The Cuomo administration has a clear contempt for the public right to know.

Of course, reporters wouldn’t have to file as many FOI requests as they do if the administration would simply answer questions. But again, obstruction and delay are the order of the day.

The Cuomo crowd also suffers from hubris. How else do you explain submitting a request for proposals that limits the field of developers for the SolarCity project to contractors who have been doing business in Buffalo for 50 years. Yeah, that’s right, 50 years. That prerequisite – later changed to 15 years and blamed on a typo – would have eliminated all but one developer from consideration, who just so happened to be one of the governor’s major campaign contributors.

Did they really expect no one to notice?

Or how about the response the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle received in March after it requested emails and other documents related to the state’s photonics initiative. After a seven-month wait, state-controlled entities provided the newspaper with 933 pages of documents that were almost entirely blacked out. The bureaucrats backpedaled only after the D&C published one of the most scathing editorials I have ever seen in a daily newspaper, one in which the paper’s editorial board proclaimed that the state bureaucrat who shipped off the redacted documents gave the paper “his middle finger. Or, to be accurate, it was more like both middle fingers.”

So, no one should be flabbergasted that Preet Bharara is casting a wider net. If anything, it’s a bit of a surprise that it took prosecutors this long to start sniffing around the governor’s office. The values Cuomo has instilled in his administration provide fertile ground for the kind of shenanigans the U.S. Attorney is investigating.