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Cost, release of internal probe of Cuomo’s office uncertain

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pictured in an undated file

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pictured in an undated file photo, said Tuesday, May 24, 2016 he wouldn't reveal how much he expects taxpayers will pay for an internal review by a private attorney he hired to look into his administration's handling of the Buffalo Billion development project, which is now under federal investigation. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Slaven Vlasic

ALBANY _ Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday wouldn’t say how much he expects taxpayers will pay for an internal review by a private attorney he hired to look into his administration’s handling of the Buffalo Billion development project which is now under federal investigation.

At first Cuomo also told reporters he couldn’t make any report of that internal review public. But afterward his spokesman said the private attorney would release his findings if it didn’t interfere with the federal probe. Neither answer squares with public records law covering release of taxpayer-paid documents, according to the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

“I think it is inconsistent with the law,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

Freeman said any report from the private attorney, Bart Schwartz, would be a document of the governor’s office subject to the Freedom of Information Law. Freeman said a separate decision by the governor’s office would have to be made later, after the report is complete, as to whether the report or parts of the report could be kept from the public because it would jeopardize the federal probe.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement: “Mr. Schwartz will make his findings public unless a law enforcement agency determines that it would interfere with their work.”

Azzopardi provided his written comment after Cuomo in a news conference said public release of any report would be solely the choice of Schwartz, for whatever reason he chose.

“I don’t know what the terms are,” Cuomo told reporters. “He was hired as an independent, to an independent review. I don’t know what his standard protocol is. I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but I don’t know how he operates.”

Cuomo counsel Alponso David then interjected and said release of findings from the attorney’s review would be at the complete discretion of the private sector attorney, Bart Schwartz.

“It’s not our decision,” David said. “He’s an independent investigator that’s been retained by the state.”

Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, then interjected. She said Schwartz would send the report to the U.S. Attorney’s Office when completed. She then said “he” would determine where else it might be released, but she didn’t specify if she was referring to the U.S. attorney or Schwartz before hastily ending the news conference in which Cuomo announced his proposals for ethics laws.

Cuomo also wouldn’t say how much Schwartz will be paid. He said that will be determined in a contract now being drawn even as Schwartz’s work is underway. When asked by a reporter, Cuomo said that although the contract isn’t final, he couldn’t put in a clause that would require a report to made public because the contract was only about money.

On April 29 Cuomo’s office received a federal subpoena looking into the commercial development project using state money and tax breaks that Cuomo has called the Buffalo Billion. Cuomo’s office said that contractors may have deceived and defrauded the state and that one of his longtime aides, Joseph Percoco, may have engaged in improper lobbying.

At the same time, Schwartz said he would report “any information I find to the U.S. Attorney and the administration.”

Cuomo said he hasn’t been questioned directly or indirectly by federal investigators about his actions.

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