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Lawyer gets broader power for ‘all decisions’ related to Buffalo Billion

ALBANY – The Cuomo administration has told State University of New York officials that “all decisions” involving the Buffalo Billion projects are now subject to approval guidelines being developed by a newly hired lawyer brought in to review the program.

The new edict made public this morning portrays Manhattan attorney Bart M. Schwartz’s powers as more sweeping than originally suggested a week ago.

Schwartz was brought in last week to review the Buffalo Billion program just hours after federal prosecutors issued a subpoena to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

Schwartz’s duties were identified last week by Cuomo sources as scrutinizing past, present and future Buffalo Billion projects.

The letter made public this morning adds an “approval” element to Schwartz’s authority.

“This directive shall be effective immediately and continue until further notice,” Alphonso David, Cuomo’s in-house counsel, said in the letter to SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and SUNY Research Foundation Interim President Alexander Cartwright. It was written May 2.

Administration officials have said there is no plan to delay or halt the main Buffalo Billion program now under construction: the RiverBend facility that will house SolarCity’s manufacturing plant.

The newly released letter also states that Schwartz has review and approval control not just over Buffalo Billion programs, but all “Nano programs,” which are economic development efforts in other upstate cities that are being coordinated by SUNY Polytechnic, which has campuses in Albany and outside Utica.

Schwartz is a former federal prosecutor. Though he was tapped last Friday to review the Buffalo Billion program, a task he began Monday, Schwartz and the state have not yet finalized a contract. Cuomo officials on Thursday evening said they cannot yet say what Schwartz is being paid.

After word of the federal subpoena was made public last Friday, the Cuomo administration also banned state officials from having contact with two others: Todd Howe and Competitive Power Ventures.

The Cuomo administration released Thursday a letter from the governor’s counsel to three state agencies ordering them to cease communications with Competitive Power Ventures, or CPV, a firm trying to build a controversial power plant in Orange County in the Hudson Valley.

The Cuomo administration has said a probe of the Buffalo Billion program has also recently raised questions about “improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest” by some individuals or entities.

Two longtime Cuomo advisers are under scrutiny: Joseph Percoco, his most trusted aide who left the payroll in January, and Todd Howe, a Washington-based lobbyist who, like Percoco, goes back to the days of working in the administration of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Ethics disclosure forms for 2014 this week showed Percoco getting as much as $125,000 from two entities: CHA, an Albany engineering firm that has done work on the Buffalo Billion program, and COR Development, a Syracuse-area firm that was involved in a Syracuse nanotechnology project run through SUNY.

In addition, Percoco’s wife also has been paid by Chris Pitts LLC. Various documents and old news accounts suggest Pitts is connected to the company building the Orange County power plant. Calls to Chris Pitts in Connecticut have not been returned in a week.

It is uncertain when Percoco made the money in 2014, but Cuomo this week said the outside work came while Percoco took a seven-month leave from state service to run the governor’s re-election campaign.

Howe, too, has his hands in a number of state-related projects. Among them has been work for SUNY Polytechnic and, for several years, LPCiminelli, the Buffalo construction firm awarded the general contractor deal for RiverBend. The Buffalo News reported last Saturday that Howe’s firm, Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, is getting $55,000 between March and the end of December for “legislative and regulatory counsel work.”

Howe is president of WHO Government Solutions, a subsidiary of the Albany-based law and lobbying firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna.

In a letter to all state agencies, the governor’s counsel directed that state officials have no “lobbying communications” with Howe, his staff and agents or “any representative of WHO Government Solutions.

“Lobbying communications” is defined by state law as any that are meant to influence passage or defeat of legislation, or actions by the governor on legislation, or anything related to adoption or rejection of rules, regulations, rate-making proceedings, or local laws and ordinances.

Since the subpoena was sent by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to Cuomo’s office last Friday, there have been no letters or warnings about state officials not having any contact with Percoco.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com