‘Buffalo Billion’ Proves We Need Protection From Corruption

Two things are abundantly clear in the aftermath of the “Buffalo Billion” corruption trial in New York City — it’s time for a new governor and it’s time for the state Legislature to pass legislation to make sure public money is better protected.

Last week, Alain Kaloyeros, former State University of New York Polytechnic Institute president; Louis Ciminelli, a Buffalo developer; Steven Aiello and Joe Gerardi, executives at Syracuse-based COR Development; were all found guilty in a bid-rigging scheme that alleged Kaloyeros steered lucrative contracts backed with taxpayers’ money toward companies whose executives were major donors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign. Michael Miller, Kaloyeros’ lawyer, said that “Not a penny was lost. Not a bribe was paid.” Miller may be right, but that doesn’t mean Kaloyeros acted appropriately. One doesn’t have to accept a bribe to improperly influence the bidding process to help some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign contributors secure lucrative state contracts. A change of wording in a request for proposals here or a well-timed tip there is all that is necessary to create a situation in which cronyism thrives at the expense of the taxpaying public.

Why does this trial show it’s time for a new governor? The answer is simple. With a billion dollars of taxpayer money at stake, Cuomo did one of two things — created an environment in which it was easy to rig bids, with or without the governor’s knowledge, or, perhaps even more damning, didn’t have a clue what process was being followed with a billion dollars of taxpayer money. In public statements, Cuomo has claimed no knowledge of Kaloyeros’ activities. If true, that means the governor was so far away from the spending of Buffalo Billions dollars that blatant corruption was allowed to flourish.

Even worse, it can be argued the billion dollars isn’t paying off as much as hoped. The state would spend $750 million to build and equip a factory and rent it back to Elon Musk for $1 a year for 10 years as long as Musk created 1,460 jobs. Solar City barely avoided bankruptcy a couple of years later, according to the Albany Times-Union, after being acquired by Musk company Tesla, which then sold the Buffalo factory to Panasonic. The factory finally opened in 2017 and employed about 500 people — a far cry from the promised 1,467.

Much of the Buffalo Billion spending was outside the controls of typical government spending with precious little oversight. Such wastes of money are more than enough reason for this term to be Cuomo’s last. Only voters decide when they’ve had enough.

The Democrat-controlled state Assembly, meanwhile, refused to take up “clean contracting” legislation that passed the state Senate earlier this year That legislation, in direct response to the Buffalo Billion mess, would have restored the state comptroller’s oversight of SUNY and CUNY construction contracts and Office of Government Services procurement contracts for goods, services and technology; require state authorities to follow the same procurement policies as state agencies; prohibit contracting through state-affiliated nonprofits unless expressly authorized by the state Legislature or the state comptroller; require the comptroller’s office to pre-approve SUNY Research Foundation contracts more than $1 million that include any state money; expand contract reporting to let the public know ahead of time when an agency plans to request an exemption to competitive bidding rules — alerting any other possible bidders to the opportunity; and finally require state procurement officials to recuse themselves, in writing, from any conflict of interest.

The legislation didn’t go anywhere in the Assembly. Cuomo is calling on the state Senate to meet for a special session to codify Roe v. Wade in state law — a political move in response to President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s funny that Cuomo and Carl Heastie, Assembly speaker, say the Assembly doesn’t need to return to session because they have no work to do.

We would argue otherwise. Thumbing its nose at clean contract legislation means the Assembly should return to Albany, too, if there is a special session. Clean contract legislation should be law sooner than later.