LeBrun: Bharara focuses on Cuomo and the second floor by Fred LeBrun
Published 8:23 pm, Saturday, May 7, 2016

A week ago Friday late in the day, Preet Bharara finally dropped the other shoe on Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A flurry of subpoenas from federal prosecutor Bharara, the first served on the governor’s office, left no doubt New York’s chief executive and his extensive inner circle are now included in an ever broadening corruption inquiry involving the letting of state contracts and illegal conflicts of interest and lobbying.

Speculation runs wild on what else the feds might be looking for, or find.

Two of the governor’s closest confidantes, who have served both father and son Cuomo, were instantly singled out as subjects of interest. One is Todd Howe, a Washington-based lobbyist, who until very recently was employed by the lobbying wing of the Whiteman Osterman & Hanna law firm, and whose work touched a number of construction projects under federal scrutiny from the Buffalo Billion, to Syracuse to downstate.
And the other is Joe Percoco, a lawyer, who was described by Andrew as his father’s ”third son.”

The consummate insider, Percoco was frequently utilized as the governor’s emissary in the most delicate matters of policy and politics. He was known as an enforcer for the governor. Now he’s being looked at for taking hefty consulting payments from contractors, although these may or may not have been taken when he was officially in state employ, it’s murky.
The initial reaction by Cuomo’s office to the Bharara subpoenas and the bomb shells that followed was that they were ”flabbergasted” by the direction of the investigation, that is, into their wheelhouse.

What rock have they been sleeping under? Bharara could not have been more candid and transparent with the investigative course he has taken. Connecting the dots right into the governor’s office is what they’ve been trying to do all along, and apparently they feel they have sufficient cause to at least dig in and give it the hard look.

This is the biggest news that’s happened so far to the Cuomo administration, and it is not good news. How bad it is remains to be seen.

Still, a couple of observations are already merited.

Foremost, despite all the arrogant scolding by Andrew Cuomo during the formation of theMoreland Commission looking into political corruption in state government, such corruption is not the sole property of the Legislature.

Not a single legislator is involved this time. It’s all about his executive agency, his people, although the sentencing last week of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to 12 years in jail does ring in our ears, and probably also in the governor’s.

So, whatever ethics plan comes out of this governing season, if any, singling out the Legislature is no longer appropriate. Although, as noted in previous columns, what the federal prosecutor specializes in, including in the newest inquiries, is illegality, not lapses of ethics.

But these do frequently cohabitate.

We already know there’s more than smoke here, in terms of improprieties by the governor’s people, although the governor’s office has been trying desperately to distance itself from both Howe and even Percoco.

There’s been a blizzard of damage control to cover a flurry of subpoenas. A leak to a downstate tabloid to try to control the inevitable bad news from the onset broke the news.

A deliberate attempt to blur the focus of the inquiry from primarily the governor’s office to include nine-month old inquiries into Buffalo contractors and the SUNY Polytechnic Institute followed.

That’s all misdirection. Preet Bharara’s focus is on the second floor of the Capitol.

Gov. Cuomo took the extraordinary step of immediately appointing a former federal prosecutor, Bart Schwartz, to perform an external review of the Buffalo Billion contracts, and presumably a range of other contracts as well. As if Bharara’s investigation might miss something, I suppose. Or perhaps to create the impression that the governor is shocked, shocked I tell you, by what’s happened, and he’ll get to the bottom of it.

After two terms of watching how this governor works, in the shadows, with as little accountability as he can get away with, it is small wonder the culture he’s created hasn’t caught up with him earlier.

And, it’s hard to imagine a notorious micromanager like Andrew Cuomo being caught totally blind by the doings of his brother Joseph, and very old friend Todd. That just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Again, to be determined though.

But if Schwartz’s appointment was extraordinary, what was indeed flabbergasting was that before he even began his review he admitted the federal investigation ”has recently raised questions of improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest by some individuals which may have deceived state employees involved in the respective programs (related to the Buffalo Billion and SUNY Poly projects) and may have defrauded the state.”

For Howe and Percoco, that’s being tossed under the bus with dizzying speed.

Even so, justice can work in mysterious ways. Consider: Just when the governor’s arch rival New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the subject of a number of investigations including by Bharara, seems to be in real trouble over campaign contributions, the governor suddenly finds himself on the defensive as well and in no position to take full advantage of de Blasio’s weakness.

Meanwhile on the national political stage, the one Andrew Cuomo covets, the future is beginning to look bright for a new progressive face after the current political cycle passes in up to eight years. Except, Preet’s surprise casts doubt that face will be Andrew’s.

flebrun • 518-454-5453

Michael Benjamin