Cuomo defends Buffalo Billion program, longtime adviser - The Buffalo News

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Cuomo defends Buffalo Billion program, longtime adviser

ALBANY – In his first public comments since his office was subpoenaed last week as part of the Buffalo Billion probe, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday stood by the economic program while at the same time strongly defending payments his longtime senior adviser took from state contractors during a temporary absence from the state payroll to run the governor’s 2014 campaign.

“I’ve known Joe Percoco for many years and he is a good man and I’d be shocked if he did anything wrong, but let’s get the facts and we can all make our own decisions,” Cuomo said Monday evening of his close friend and longtime adviser now under investigation.

Cuomo said a review by a private law firm of the Buffalo Billion economic development program that he ordered last Friday after his office was subpoenaed formally began Monday, but that there is no plan to halt the initiative. The program has been under investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara since at least last spring.

Cuomo said the Buffalo Billion is “doing great work,” but he now wants a review of the program as Bharara’s probe continues. Last fall, after it was revealed the initial round of Buffalo Billion subpoenas were sent, Cuomo said he did not see a reason to examine the program. “It’s also important for me to be able to say to the people of the state of New York that the Buffalo Billion … is being run well and their tax dollars are being protected,” he said Monday.

Reporters in a 17-minute session with Cuomo in Manhattan did not ask the governor for any details of the subpoena his office received last Friday.

State records made public late Monday show Percoco received large consulting payments from two big state contractors totaling as much as $125,000 sometime during 2014. In an annual filing of his finances with a state ethics agency, Percoco reported getting paid “consulting fees” by CHA Consulting and COR Development. Bharara is, among other aspects, looking into the payments to Percoco as his office recently sent out a new round of subpoenas in its Buffalo Billion probe.

Among those saying Monday they are cooperating with Bharara’s investigation: SolarCity, the California company for which the state is building a massive solar energy plant in South Buffalo’s RiverBend.

The filings do not say precisely when in 2014 Percoco made the outside income. When Percoco left the state that year to become Cuomo’s re-election campaign manager, Cuomo said Percoco told him that he “might be accepting consulting arrangements with other companies.” Cuomo said Percoco did not ever tell him the names of the companies and he apparently never asked him.

Cuomo did not directly answer a question if anyone in his administration ever sought information about Percoco’s finances while he was temporarily off the payroll and running Cuomo’s campaign. “Can you leave state service and then represent companies that deal with the state? Yes, you can,” Cuomo said when asked about the ethical appearance of the arrangements.

The ethics filings by Percoco do not specifically show when Percoco made the consulting fees, but Cuomo said it came while Percoco was on his campaign re-election team.

Both companies paying Percoco do business with the state in various programs administered by the Cuomo administration. Both are major Cuomo donors. Albany-based CHA did civil engineering work on the SolarCity project at RiverBend in Buffalo, as well as other upstate projects run through SUNY Polytechnic. COR Development, a major central New York construction contractor headquartered outside Syracuse, has a contract with SUNY Polytechnic for a project in the Syracuse suburbs.

In his filing with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Percoco listed three sources of outside income in 2014: Cuomo’s campaign, CHA and COR. His income, as allowed by law, is reported in ranges: $100,000 to $150,000 working on the campaign, $20,000 to $50,000 from CHA, and $50,000 to $75,000 from COR. The CHA and COR work was for “consulting fees,” the report states.

According to payroll records from the state Comptroller’s Office, Percoco began in the Attorney General’s Office making $120,000 shortly after Cuomo was elected in 2006. He went with Cuomo to the Governor’s Office and by early 2014, before his temporary leave, his job title was listed was listed as confidential assistant and he made $155,974 a year. In December, after Cuomo’s re-election, Percoco rejoined the office with the same title, but a pay bump to $169,000. When he left this past January to join Madison Square Garden Co., he held the same title and had a salary of $175,828.

The 2014 form notes his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, had a salary of between $75,000 and $100,000 from an entity called Chris Pitts LLC. A 2012 article in a Connecticut newspaper, the Norwich Bulletin, identified a Chris Pitts as being connected to Competitive Power Ventures, a company building an Orange County power plant and which the Cuomo administration, after getting subpoenaed Friday, ordered state officials not to have contacts with; it is unknown if Chris Pitts LLC is connected to that Chris Pitts.

Missing from the Percoco filings furnished by the ethics agency to The Buffalo News Monday was his financial activities in 2013. Officials said Percoco left the payroll on April 20, 2014 – several weeks before the May 15 deadline that year when he would have been required to file a disclosure form about his financial activities during the 2013 calendar year. He then rejoined Cuomo’s office on December 8, 2014.

Percoco was Cuomo’s closest staffer, and he turned to him for everything from fixing thorny political and policy snags to overseeing the governor’s public events to being his fishing trip companion.

The Cuomo administration Friday said it had hired an outside lawyer to review the Buffalo Billion program. That announcement came just hours after Cuomo’s office received a subpoena as part of Bharara’s probe.

That outside lawyer, Bart M. Schwartz, said Friday that “the state has reason to believe that in certain circumstances and regulatory approvals they have been defrauded by improper rigging and failures to disclose potential conflicts of interests by lobbyists and former state employees.” The administration did not name the individuals, but Percoco’s name quickly surfaced on Friday.

The administration on Friday also banned state officials from having contact with Todd Howe, a lobbyist with Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna. Howe, like Percoco, is a longtime friend of Cuomo. Both Percoco and Howe worked for the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the current governor’s father. Howe has done work involving the Buffalo Billion and other projects run by a corporation created by SUNY Polytechnic, and his firm has a lobbying retainer with LPCiminelli, the Buffalo firm handling the construction at RiverBend and which last year received a subpoena from Bharara’s office regarding its Buffalo Billion probe.

After several days of silence, CHA, the Albany engineering firm and a major Cuomo donor, said Monday it has responded to prosecutors about the Buffalo Billion probe. “We are cooperating fully with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and have been responding to their requests. Based on those discussions, it is our understanding that we are not a target of the investigation,” said Michael McGovern, a lawyer who is representing CHA.

CHA’s work has included civil engineering on the big SolarCity manufacturing plant, as well as other upstate projects overseen by SUNY Polytechnic and Cuomo’s economic development agency.

CHA has also been major campaign contributors to state and local candidates and political committees. Since 2009, it has given approximately $600,000 to a variety of political campaigns in New York, according to state Board of Elections records.

Its biggest recipient during that time has been Cuomo; the company has donated $196,000 to the governor’s campaign fund since 2009.

The Buffalo Billion probe intensified in June when subpoenas were issued to Cuomo’s economic development agency and SUNY Polytechnic, which oversee the Buffalo Billion program, as well as to LPCiminelli and McGuire Development, two Buffalo companies that won contracts for current and future projects of the Buffalo program.

Percoco has not made any comments, and his lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comments on Monday.

SUNY Polytechnic officials did not respond to emails seeking payment information to CHA for work done on the Buffalo Billion program and other upstate projects.


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