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Zemsky continues in two competing roles for Gov. Cuomo

Way back in April, the duties that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo assigned to Howard A. Zemsky were posing a problem for the Buffalo businessman.

The governor’s Western New York confidant found himself not only responsible for the state’s economic development efforts, but for leading the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority as well.

Conflicts arose. Some roles overlapped.

The questions that dogged Zemsky revolved around the two state government hats he was wearing: a Cuomo Cabinet member praising the governor’s agenda, and head of the transit agency lobbying for more state money.

And Cuomo’s office acknowledged that something had to give: Zemsky would relinquish his NFTA chairmanship, and a new authority head would be named by the end of last June.

But almost 10 months later, Zemsky remains at the helm of the transit authority, even though his physical presence at commissioners’ meetings remains rare. As he crisscrosses the state as president of Cuomo’s Empire State Development Corp., Zemsky has missed most transit board meetings over the past several months, though he votes and weighs in via teleconference. Authority officials say he also regularly consults with staff.

Though their timetable is significantly delayed, administration officials now say they still hope to replace Zemsky with a new NFTA chairman.

“We’re still reviewing potential candidates, and we’re hopeful to have a nomination for the Senate to consider soon,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. “In the meantime, Howard has graciously agreed to stay on.”

Zemsky’s status as one of Cuomo’s closest advisers in Western New York increased in 2015, when the governor named him commissioner of economic development and president of Empire State Development.

But questions arose early in the 2015 budget-adoption process when Zemsky was dispatched with other Cabinet officials across the state to tout the state budget. During a January 2015 appearance at the Seneca Falls Community Center, for example, a Finger Lakes Times account reported Zemsky’s praise for the Cuomo budget highlighted by economic development, tax reductions and a tone of good government.

But his talk never mentioned concerns that another state agency – the NFTA – was expressing about the budget.

Back in Buffalo, a state budget challenged Zemsky’s NFTA staff because it left the agency with almost $10 million less than needed.

Last April, Zemsky emphasized that he had no plans to leave the NFTA while earlier acknowledging inquiries about potential conflicts as “fair questions.” And he defended his ability to advocate for the NFTA while also serving in the governor’s Cabinet.

“If the state said this was anything unethical or inappropriate, of course I would step down,” Zemsky said then. “I am very confident I can represent and advocate for the NFTA board while head of Empire State Development.”

Zemsky added that “I understand how somebody might take another position.”

But when The Buffalo News asked the Governor’s Office last April about Zemsky’s roles and his intention to remain at the NFTA, Cuomo’s spokesman then announced the chairman’s upcoming departure.

Zemsky resigned several other volunteer posts after assuming Cuomo’s Cabinet-level appointment last year, but authority sources say he remained at the NFTA helm because he considers it an important agency that complements his economic development efforts.

Henry M. Sloma, the NFTA vice chairman who runs most board of commissioners meetings in Zemsky’s absence, said he hopes the chairman will continue. He noted that the authority is well managed under Zemsky’s leadership.

“I don’t see or feel any ethical conflict coming from him doing all the things he has to do,” Sloma said. “That’s up to him.

“The governor finds comfort in Howard,” he added. “He is a straight shooter and that’s why the governor likes him.”