ALBANY — Large-scale building projects were supposed to be Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s legacy. Thursday, some of them became an embarrassment, some legislators and analysts said.
Federal officials charged some of the governor’s closest confidantes and some noteworthy campaign donors. Prosecutors alleged a wide-ranging scheme to essentially reward contributors with lucrative contracts through development initiatives such as the “Buffalo Billion” and State University of New York nanotechnology projects.
Bid requirements were “tailored” so that certain campaign donors would win, officials said. In doing so, the participants “tarnished” and “tainted” projects that were meant to rebuild Buffalo, said Adam Cohen, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo office.
The scandal could overshadow the redevelopment initiatives, some said, and could make Cuomo’s vow to clean up state government ring hollow.
“This is an incredibly huge black eye,” said Assemb. Steve McLaughlin (R-Schaghticoke), a longtime critic of the governor and his economic programs. “I think that, besides the Buffalo Billion, you have to take a look at every economic initiative he’s undertaken.”
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog group, called the allegations “stunning in scope.”
The “staggering part of the whole thing is that ex-high level officials and allies of the governor viewed the state’s economic development policies as a gold rush,” Horner said.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) called the federal allegations, “truly disappointing and concerning. Our justice system will determine all the facts and we will continue to monitor developments in this matter.”
Cuomo, in almost six years in office, has pushed a variety of high-profile construction projects as key parts of his agenda. They include a new Tappan Zee Bridge and an overhaul of LaGuardia Airport.
It’s such a part of his public relations strategy that the phrase “Built to Lead” adorns the top of news releases.
Earlier this year, he proposed $100 billion worth of projects, although the plan was mostly aspirational and had little money behind it.
Cuomo has touted a solar-panel project in Buffalo, a film hub in Syracuse and an expansion of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute — all of which have yet to get off the ground but played roles in the federal charges.
Critics, who have maintained that Cuomo too often picked favored projects rather than lowering costs for all businesses, said the governor’s program needs more scrutiny.
“The state’s economic development efforts are designed to put people to work, to revitalize communities and to help New Yorkers put food on the table. They are not designed to line the pockets of the politically connected,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua).
Cuomo said Thursday that he holds his administration “to the highest level of integrity. ... This sort of breach, if true, should be and will be punished.”
Among those indicted: Joseph Percoco, a longtime adviser and campaign manager whom the governor often referred to a brother and “Mario Cuomo’s third son.”
That level of involvement works to undermine a vow Cuomo made upon taking office in 2011, said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio: To clean up a state government.
“He promised to clean up Albany. Now, the ethics problem has reached the governor’s door on the second floor,” Muzzio said, referring to the governor’s chambers at the State Capitol. “On a whole range of issues, the governor is going to be under fire and rightly so.”
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, when asked if he could give the governor a “clean bill of health” on the matter, said: “What I can say, at this moment, is there are no allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor anywhere in this complaint. That’s all I’m going to say.”