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Pro-Cuomo cash scandal hits home

The Buffalo area's leading business advocacy group helped funnel $800,000 in contributions to a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization that critics have called a front for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's political and policy agendas.

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said his group served as "the gatherer" to transfer nearly $1 million in contributions from various business interests in Western New York to the Committee to Save New York. He declined to name those making the contributions.

"We just helped bundle individuals giving money," Rudnick said

The donations went to a group that has helped Cuomo -- through millions of dollars in ad campaigns -- push everything from a property tax cap to spending cuts opposed by labor unions but backed by business interests.

Revelations of the financial ties by Western New York interests to the Committee to Save New York -- Albany's biggest lobbying entity last year in its first year in existence -- came to light Monday after the New York Times said gambling interests provided more than $2 million to the group at a time when Cuomo was considering a dramatic expansion of casino gambling in the state.

Rudnick said the Partnership, its foundation or political action committee was not directly involved in funding the Committee to Save New York. But he said the group was a conduit for business executives and companies to make donations in 2011, when the group was forming.

The Times reported that Cuomo administration officials encouraged groups tied to casino interests to give to the Committee to Save New York, a claim denied by the governor's office.

Rudnick said no one from the administration discussed any donation effort between Western New York interests and the committee. "It was all done through the Committee to Save New York," he said.

Rudnick said the money was donated in the beginning of 2011 for efforts by the group to influence the debate in Albany during Cuomo's first legislative session in office. He said there was no connection between the outpouring of support to the Committee to Save New York and Cuomo's decision earlier this year to target the Buffalo area with a $1 billion economic development commitment from the state.

The Partnership is on the advisory board of the Committee to Save New York. Rudnick said the contributions were intended "primarily to help Cuomo deal with a $10 billion budget deficit in a way that was not chaotic like in other states but in a way that made very good sense, including not raising taxes and fees."

When asked if the donations were worth it, Rudnick said, "I think the outcome says it was." He was referring to the 2011 budget deal that cut the deficit and avoided tax hikes.

Genting New York, a Malaysian-based betting conglomerate and the largest single donor of the gambling industry funds to the Cuomo support group, is the operator of a new casino at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. The firm also was involved years ago in providing a high-interest loan worth tens of millions of dollars to the Seneca Nation of Indians for the development of its Niagara Falls casino.

In his State of the State address this year, the governor called for creation of the world's largest convention center at Aqueduct, and he had supported a plan by Genting to develop the site and add new betting options at the casino.

The Times said Genting and the New York Gaming Association, whose members include racetrack-based casino operators, including Buffalo's Delaware North Cos., donated $2 million in two separate contributions late last year and that Genting put in another $400,000.

Josh Vlasto, the governor's spokesman, reiterated a view Cuomo has expressed in the past -- that he strongly opposes any effort to develop future casinos only at existing racetrack casino facilities. Cuomo on Monday said he wants a task force to independently select casino sites if the casino constitutional amendment change is passed and that future sites should be located at facilities that will maximize revenue-sharing payments.

The Times said that Genting and the gaming association were weighing whether to fund their own advertising campaign to promote a pro-casino effort but were encouraged, instead, by members of the administration to donate to the Committee to Save New York. Vlasto denied any such thing occurred.

The committee was Albany's biggest registered lobbying group last year, with $12 million in expenses, nearly all of it on pro-Cuomo advertising.

Meanwhile, the group's spending has permitted the governor to raise money for his own political campaign without having to spend major amounts on advertising to pump up his political standing.