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Cuomo acts to reduce conflicts of interest in state contracts

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday said he is taking a number of unilateral steps designed to reduce potential conflicts of interests and fraud in the annual awarding of billions of dollars in state contracts.

The governor’s actions come as indictments are due to be handed down any day now in an ongoing federal corruption case brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a probe that spread across the state after commencing with allegations over the awarding of the largest Buffalo Billion project.

The governor said he will order his campaign and the Democratic Party to refuse contributions from companies once a request for proposal for a state contract has been announced “and for six months following the conclusion for the winner,’’ he said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“I believe the other state offices and the Legislature should do the same and will propose such a law,’’ Cuomo said.

The governor said the State University of New York, which has become embroiled in the Buffalo Billion contracting scandal, will be subject to its own, internal inspector general’s office and charged with “identifying and investigating conflicts of interest, fraud and abuse.’’ The order will apply to the City University of New York system as well; it is unclear if the SUNY board, which Cuomo controls, will have to approve the IG’s creation.

The governor said the SUNY IG’s office will be tasked with reviewing contracts for possible illegal acts and will “look for personal benefit to any executive or legislative employee or improper actions with a third party.’’

In another move, Cuomo said he will name an executive branch chief procurement officer to review “all state contracts with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.’’

“And just so there is no confusion, I do mean all contracts,’’ he said of the procurement officer’s responsibility over any contract that involves state money.

Uncertain, though, is how state authorities, many of which are quasi-independent and have their own boards of directors, will be affected. Those entities, such as the Thruway Authority and Power Authority, have their own massive budgets with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual contracting deals. A Cuomo spokesman said this afternoon that a change in state law would have to happen in order for the procurement officer to have jurisdiction over authorities and such quasi-public entities as public benefit corporations.

The announcement by Cuomo came a day after a bruising fight erupted when his appointees to a special commission rejected a plan to give state lawmakers their first salary increase since 1999. Cuomo has sought to link the pay hikes to stronger ethics and campaign finance laws.

On Wednesday, in his written commentary on ethics in Albany, Cuomo repeated his call for legislators to restrict their outside income to a total of 15 percent of their total income, as based on a congressional model.

Cuomo said the state’s ethics agency – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics which is heavily dominated by people allied with the governor – should get additional authority to “root out conflicts of interest by local government officials.’’ He did not elaborate. He also again called for public financing of campaigns; the governor has amassed a campaign war chest topping $19 million as of the most recent public disclosure filing in July.

“These reforms will make a difference,’’ Cuomo said.

But the governor, in a clear reference to the most recent Albany scandal, which included the arrest of his longtime friend, Joseph Percoco, said the public should not be misled into thinking government corruption will ever entirely end.

“Virtually every administration in every era has been touched by it. I have seen it myself and I have been shocked and hurt by it,’’ Cuomo wrote.

One organization that calls for improvements in ethics and other laws in Albany called Cuomo's proposals weak.

Reinvent Albany said it is curious that Cuomo proposed a "narrow" definition of "doing business" with the state for the purposes of restricting donations to his campaign by companies that are engaged in a pending request for proposal contract process. It said other governments use far broader definitions and mandatory donation restrictions than the voluntary one Cuomo proposed Wednesday.

The group said that Cuomo's idea for a chief procurement officer seeks to give the governor's executive branch another layer of involvement, ignoring that there is already an independently elected fiscal monitor -- state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli -- whose power involving some SUNY contracts was diminished several years ago by a Cuomo-led effort.

The statement by Cuomo comes in advance of what promises to be another round of headlines over Albany corruption. Indictments against Percoco and seven other individuals, including LPCiminelli head Louis Ciminelli and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, are expected to be made public some time before next Wednesday, possibly as early as Thursday.

The charges, brought in September and pending in federal court in Manhattan, include corruption accusations involving how the largest Buffalo Billion contract – RiverBend’s SolarCity project – was awarded to LPCiminelli. Other targets include key players involved in a SUNY-led development in the Syracuse area, as well as an effort to develop a downstate power plant.

A ninth person, former lobbyist Todd Howe, another longtime Cuomo ally, has pled guilty for his role in the various matters and has been cooperating with prosecutors since June.

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