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Cuomo says he has not been questioned by prosecutors in probe of Buffalo Billion

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that he has not been questioned by federal prosecutors in their widening probe of his signature Buffalo Billion economic-development program.

But the governor, in a stop in the Adirondacks, pledged that he and his administration will cooperate “100 percent” with the investigation by Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Taking questions from reporters after an environmental event, Cuomo said Bharara’s probe is aimed at just two people: both of them trusted advisers who have worked for Cuomo in and out of government for years.

“What I know is two people – Todd Howe and Joe Percoco – are being looked at for possible improper actions,” Cuomo said.

For years, Percoco and Howe performed various tasks on the governor’s behalf. Percoco was on Cuomo’s executive chamber staff and did such things as working out problems Cuomo had with lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists; he left his post earlier this year to join Madison Square Garden Co. Howe was a lobbyist with Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, a large Albany law and lobbying firm that recently fired him. Both men’s homes were searched by the FBI.

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Cuomo did not say why he thinks the Bharara investigation is aimed only at Percoco and Howe. Bharara, whose most recent and significant Albany corruption convictions were of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, has declined to comment on his current probe, which intensified last June after the issuance of subpoenas to two state entities and two private firms involved in the Buffalo Billion.

Cuomo’s comments come after his office was subpoenaed for a wide range of information pertaining to the Buffalo Billion, other upstate economic-development initiatives and the dealings of Percoco and Howe.

Percoco accepted as much as $125,000 in payments from two state contractors sometime in 2014; that was the year Percoco left Cuomo’s office for part of the year to work on the governor’s re-election campaign. Howe’s lobbying and consulting work has included the Buffalo Billion.

Cuomo said Tuesday that it was not his job to ask Percoco about the outside consulting fees. He previously has said Percoco mentioned that he might make some consulting fees when he left Cuomo’s staff to run his campaign; Cuomo said he never asked him for specifics.

On Tuesday, he likened the situation to the Tax Department not having to remind New Yorkers to pay their taxes.

“There are rules. People know the rules. They’re very clear. They’re very precise, and people should follow the rules,” Cuomo said.

The governor cautioned that no one knows whether any state laws or rules were violated by the two men. “The state has tens of thousands of employees. They’re not supposed to be cross-examined to make sure they’re following the rules, right?” he said.

It is not known whether anyone in Cuomo’s office ever read Percoco’s annual financial-disclosure form that he filed with a state ethics agency.

After his office received the subpoena, Cuomo retained an outside lawyer from Manhattan, Bart Schwartz, to review past and future payments associated with the Buffalo Billion and other projects run out of SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

Cuomo, a former state attorney general, chided the media for what he characterized as suggestions that Bharara is investigating various people who either serve or have served in his administration. He said that it is a normal investigative process that prosecutors would seek to question as many people as possible.

“It doesn’t mean that a witness did anything wrong. If anything, the state was victimized here,” Cuomo said, adding that “if anyone did anything wrong, I will be the first to throw the book at them.”

Cuomo said prosecutors have been told that the administration will be cooperative. “We don’t have the answers. People on the executive chamber, people who worked with Joe Percoco, people who worked with Todd Howe, might have information that would be helpful. I might have information that might be helpful,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he was not “close friends” with Howe. “I didn’t really have communications with Todd Howe. I would see him at events, etc.,” he said.

Issuance of the subpoena came while lawmakers were back in the State Capitol after a break. Before they left, Cuomo had said that stronger ethics and campaign finance law changes would be his top priority for his administration and lawmakers to tackle leading up to the end of the 2016 session in June.

Cuomo signaled that his policy priorities have not changed. He said he will be advocating “strenuously” for items such as forfeiting government pensions for convicted felons, income limitations for lawmakers and term limits.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com