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Investigation into possible bid-rigging is just the latest argument for ethics reform

Two things – not contradictory, one hopes – are necessary to come from the federal investigation into aspects of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development program.

First is that the chips fall where they may. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating how contracts were let for projects related to the Buffalo Billion and, clearly, all New Yorkers have a compelling interest in open and honest government.

Second is that the Buffalo Billion program proceed uninterrupted and as planned. All Western New Yorkers have a compelling interest in the revival of the regional economy, which has been propelled by Cuomo’s commitment of $1 billion to the area.

It was shocking, though perhaps not surprising, that Bharara’s investigation has reached into Cuomo’s office, which was served with subpoenas last week. The federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York is a bulldog in pursuing official corruption, and the New York way of doing things has been historically suspect, frequently unethical and too often criminal.

Although details remain sketchy, Bharara’s office is examining the contract awards process in the Buffalo Billion program, as well as possible other state projects elsewhere. Last week, the prosecutor issued subpoenas to Cuomo’s executive chamber as it examined issues related to two former aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe.

On Monday, state records showed that in 2014, Percoco had received payments totaling up to $125,000 from two big state contractors, CHA Consulting and Cor Development. The payments may have been made while Percoco was on leave from state employment to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign. That could make such payments “merely” unethical, but not enough is known yet.

Cuomo’s office was “flabbergasted” by the direction of the investigation, according to a source who said, “The devastation is acute.” While Cuomo has launched his own investigation into the matter, on Monday he defended Percoco as “a good man” but said the facts will tell the tale. Last week, though, a statement from the former federal prosecutor retained by the Cuomo administration for the investigation suggested that crimes may have been committed.

“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,” stated Bart M. Schwartz.

It’s a mess, at least from the public’s vantage point. How it looks from Bharara’s is unknown, though clarity is likely at some point. It may be that the best New Yorkers can hope for is that nothing worse than unethical occurred, rather than actually criminal.

Sad to say, that kind of unethical-but-legal conduct happens in New York regularly. Contract bids, for example, are frequently solicited with so many requirements that only a very limited number of companies could possibly qualify. That can be for better or worse, depending upon the work to be done, but often enough, it’s for worse.

Regardless, this development should give Cuomo even more incentive to push for ethics reform in the weeks remaining in the legislative session. He has promised to make it a priority, and given the parade of elected officials convicted of serious felonies – most recently including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos – the need was already great.

It didn’t need to become even more severe to warrant action, but it just did.