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Power Authority must end largess Ruling prohibits gifts unrelated to mission

The State Power Authority is cleaning up its million-dollar-a-year pork-barrel program that used ratepayers' money for everything from underwriting St. Patrick's Day parades and jazz festivals to supporting youth sports teams and volunteer fire departments.

State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has issued a legal opinion that effectively prohibits state authorities from making charitable contributions not related to their core mission. The Power Authority, which may dole out more such contributions than any other state authority, has agreed to revamp its program.

The authority for years has handed out grants as small as $30 to as much as $112,500 a year to agencies and local governments across the state under its so-called corporate support program. Authority officials describe the program as an effort to be a good corporate citizen in the communities where it operates.

But the program has been loosely administered -- there's a limited criteria for distributing the money and no formal review process. The program also had a distinctly political flavor to it, The Buffalo News found in an investigation published in May.

Former Gov. George E. Pataki's hometown of Peekskill was a favorite recipient. Authority funds helped stage mock Olympics for politicians and lobbyists at Lake Placid. Organizations with ties to ranking authority officials found themselves in the money.

Locally, everything from festivals to business organizations to volunteer fire departments benefited from the authority's largess. But Western New York has received a disproportionately small share of the money, given that the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston is the authority's biggest moneymaker.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, the Power Authority's most vocal critic, described the move to overhaul the program as an "overdue reform."

"These authorities -- the Power Authority, the Thruway Authority -- become addicted to the cash they generate and take on these extraneous obligations, which have have nothing to do with their core mission," he said.

"Some of these groups are worthy of assistance, but it should not come on the back of ratepayers."

The Power Authority's decision to revamp its program was triggered by an opinion related to the Long Island Power Authority. Earlier this year, that authority asked the attorney general's opinion on the legality of several of its spending practices, including charitable contributions.

Cuomo, in an opinion issued Oct. 9, said the state law governing authorities does not grant the Long Island utility the ability to make charitable contributions that are not related to its mission.

Brian Vattimo, the Power Authority's senior vice president for public and governmental affairs, said Cuomo's staff subsequently called lawyers for his agency, advising that the opinion was applicable to the authority.

"We're in the process of evaluating the opinion and revising our corporate support policy to reflect that opinion," said Vattimo, who oversees the program.

Vattimo said he expects that a "majority" of programs funded in the past will no longer be eligible for authority aid, although he would not rule out retaining portions of the program that are energy-related.

The News investigation looked at $5.9 million in contributions to 811 organizations from 1999 to 2005. Many contributions were of the mom-and-pop variety -- under $1,000 to local little leagues, Elks Clubs and Police Benevolent Associations.

There were big-ticket items, as well. The Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates facilities used in the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics, used one-third of the $366,045 it received on the Winter Olympic Congressional Challenge, a sort of mock Olympics for congressmen, their relatives and staff, lobbyists and authority executives.

Authority President Roger Kelley has already informed the Olympic Authority that no more money will be forthcoming.

The authority also was generous to governments and organizations in White Plains and Westchester County, where its headquarters is located. The City of White Plains alone received more than $250,000, far more than any government in Western New York.

At least a dozen organizations in Pataki's hometown of Peekskill received more than $170,000 from the Power Authority. The lion's share went to the group that stages summer festivals.

Organizations in Niagara and Erie counties received about $935,000 over the seven-year period, thanks in part to a spike in contributions in 2005, when the Power Authority was negotiating with local governments in an effort to secure support for its federal application for a 50-year extension of its license to operate the Niagara Power Project.

Several communities and organizations in a position to influence the negotiations with the Power Authority received some of the largest contributions. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's leading business organization, received the biggest increase from the authority, from $5,000 in 2004 to $50,378 the following year.

The authority gave an unexpected $40,000 to Erie County -- at the height of its fiscal crisis -- to keep afloat the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission. Both County Executive Joel A. Giambra and authority officials succeeded in keeping the donation anonymous at the time.

Other contributions over the years have gone to community organizations under less questionable circumstances.

The Greater Lewiston Business and Professional Association was the largest local recipient, getting $174,990, followed by the Lewiston Public Library at $100,000. Other notable recipients include the Lower Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce, the Upper Mountain Fire Co. and the now-shuttered Festival of Lights.

Smaller recipients, who have typically gotten $50 to $200 a shot, include the Boys and Girls Club of Niagara Falls, the Kiwanis Club of Lewiston and the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

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