New York’s sleeping watchdogs

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

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara took on the role of investigating the Buffalo Billion after none of the watchdogs in state government would.

I did a story last December that detailed the questionable circumstances surrounding the awarding of development contracts to LPCiminelli and McGuire Development and the lack of transparency involving the Buffalo Billion program. I made inquiries in January with the offices of both Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to ask if either of them intended to follow up. I found no takers.

Bharara’s office, meanwhile, took note and began issuing subpoenas over the summer, as detailed Friday by The New York Post.

The U.S. attorney’s initiative begs the question, where have Schneiderman and DiNapoli been for all these months?

The answer is “missing in action.”

The attorney general happened to be in Buffalo on Monday and I caught up with him after a press conference. Watch below for a portion of our exchange: in a nutshell, he dodged my questions, saying he could not comment regarding an ongoing investigation.

(Update: Tuesday, 4:10 p.m.: Yesterday Schneiderman insisted he was prohibited by law from commenting about an ongoing investigation – his or anyone else’s. Yet today his office  issued a press release in which he discusses the ongoing probe in Volkswagen, one he says he intends on getting involved with. Which way is it, Mr. Attorney General?)

I’m not expecting Schneiderman to piggyback on the federal investigation into the Buffalo Billion contracts. But there are matters that are strictly state in nature, such as the unrelenting effort by the Cuomo administration to undermine the state Freedom of Information Law, that strike me as ripe for a look by the attorney general. Schneiderman was having none of it Monday.

The situation with the state comptroller is a bit murkier, given that the state is using a non-profit development corporation called the Fort Schuyler Management Corp. to manage Buffalo Billion projects. That raises questions about just how much jurisdiction the comptroller has to review the books. Fort Schuyler officials have used their non-profit status to resist disclosure of records under the FOI Law, as well.

That said, I don’t see DiNapoli’s office pushing the envelope. I mean, the state is spending $1 billion – actually, more than that – and the comptroller’s office is not following the money. That doesn’t strike me as right.

There is a third state entity that is in a position to keep an eye on Buffalo Billion spending, and that is the Empire State Development Corp., which is cutting the checks that Fort Schuyler is spending to build facilities.

I suppose ESD would say they are monitoring the work – if they returned phone calls, that is. Experience tells me they are not keeping a vigilant watch, however. In fact, in the transparency department, they are almost as difficult to deal with as Fort Schuyler, who we literally had to sue to obtain records.

At the end of the day, they all work for Andrew Cuomo, whose motto when it comes to transparency appears to be “Mum’s the Word.”

Unfortunately, Dinapoli and Schneiderman’s passivity is not isolated to the Buffalo Billion.

Two developers who serve on the Buffalo School Board have questioned whether LPCiminelli overcharged the district to manage a massive schools reconstruction program, yet neither the attorney general or comptroller can bring themselves to look into the matter. The comptroller actually turned down requests from both Ciminelli and the School Board to review spending on the schools project.

Fortunately, Bharara’s probe is taking a look at the schools, as well.

Back of the envelope estimates of the possible over-charges range up to several hundred million dollars. Keep in mind that the state covered most of the school construction costs. Yet DiNapoli and Schneiderman aren’t curious, which I find, well, curious.