LeBrun: Taxpayers pay for Buffalo Billion project
by Fred LeBrun — Saturday, June 4, 2016

Your taxpayer dollars at work, but not necessarily for you.

Last week, the little known Public Authorities Control Board, itself controlled by the three men in a room who run our state government, approved sending $485.5 million of those tax dollars to finish the SolarCity project out in Buffalo, a key part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature economic development scheme for the state’s western region, known as the Buffalo Billion.

Earlier, this same board took the unprecedented step of requiring more answers about what this money was for from the governor’s people, and postponed a vote. Ah, but this time, fully reassured by the governor’s minions that everything is in order, that jobs, jobs, jobs were on the line, they gave it an enthusiastic three thumbs up. So off the money goes.

This, despite the fact the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, has made it crystal clear that every aspect of the Buffalo Billion is under intense scrutiny by his office, and it’s not to hand out gold stars. But the governor got his way, despite entreaties from Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb to slow down and investigate more fully, given the hefty taxpayer payout to the same entities presumably under scrutiny by the feds.

Cuomo has disdained any suggestion the integrity of the Buffalo Billion projects is under significant attack by the federal inquiry with a curious comment: "the Buffalo Billion is a tremendous success."

As if that matters in terms of criminal activity. Success or failure can still feature bid rigging, inappropriate this-for-that exchanges, and a whole lot more, the sum of which is taxpayer waste.

It will be years before we know if the enormous taxpayer investment in the Buffalo Billion provides sustainable economic growth for western New York, or turns out to be a colossal public works bridge to nowhere, or, most probably, something in between. But it will be only a matter of a couple of months, probably, and we’ll have a pretty good idea what malfeasance Preet’s investigators have uncovered.

So you’d think a prudent state government, not one in deep opportunistic denial, would take the federal investigation very seriously and put a chunk of the taxpayer money in escrow until the cloud is lifted over the Buffalo Billion.

Last week a Siena College poll revealed that nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers are deeply skeptical any significant anti-corruption legislation will be passed in the remaining couple of weeks of the legislative session — even though the issue remains almost universally viewed as the most important for both the governor and Legislature.

That’s about right, given what we’ve seen from the governor on continuing to feed the maw he’s created in Buffalo, as if Preet doesn’t exist. It’s fine, I suppose, if he wants to gamble with his own money, or that of his many deep-pocketed contributors, but those are taxpayer dollars he’s shuffling off to Buffalo.

While the governor is dancing as fast as he can to deflect attention from himself over the broadening scandal engulfing his administration, eventually reality will catch up. He can pretend the federal investigation is really only focused on "a couple of people" who were once very close to him but now he barely knows, and everything else is fine. But in all likelihood that is not the way it’s going to play out.

No state administration in living memory has been embroiled more deeply in a federal investigation of how it does business than Andrew Cuomo’s. That, in spite of the fact that Cuomo is a lawyer, and there appear to be far more lawyers per capita in the political state workforce now than ever before. Lawyers, apparently, beget lawyers and the need for more lawyers.

Right now, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor’s office, has approved spending $25,000 in taxpayer dollars a month on a Chicago law firm to defend JCOPE against lawsuits brought by public relations firms now being told they’re lobbyists. Why can’t JCOPE, rife with lawyers, defend itself?

Then there’s the sudden appearance — the same day Bharara dropped a subpoena on the Cuomo administration — of Bart Schwartz, former federal prosecutor and high-priced lawyer, whose presence is an enigma wrapped in a mystery nurtured by taxpayer dollars, thanks to the governor.

As of this writing, we don’t know how much he’ll be paid, in taxpayer dollars, to be a so-called "independent" monitor of the Buffalo Billion contracts and myriad related arrangements under Bharara’s scrutiny. Why is he necessary or even desirable, except to give the governor a little cover, or maybe a counter force? That anyone could be hired by this governor to investigate a federal investigation that could potentially blow up his administration, and be called "independent," is hilarious. Cuomo’s attack dog?

Bharara, apparently, was not amused. According to Fred Dicker of the New York Post, Schwartz was told bluntly by the federal prosecutor to stay away from the Buffalo Billion or else. Schwartz should know by heart the drill for not tampering with a federal investigation. The same source indicates Schwartz has been relegated to scrutinizing current and future contracts and materials, and not the stuff under investigation.

Which begs the question: this is worth how much to the taxpayers of the state of New York? As for needing an "independent" overseer of the Buffalo Billion, we don’t. We already have one. His name is Preet.

flebrun • 518-454-5453

Michael Benjamin