ALBANY – When word spread in late April that federal prosecutors had expanded their investigation of the Cuomo administration’s Buffalo Billion economic-development program to contracts throughout the state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had two choices: Hide in a bunker or keep a busy public schedule.
He has, with a few exceptions, chosen the latter, sometimes at a blistering pace.
With little to do but wait until Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara reveals where his investigation is taking him, Cuomo has maintained a determined face in public.
In the initial few days after the subpoena hit Cuomo’s office April 29, Cuomo had no public appearances. His office was temporarily paralyzed as stunned advisers awaited direction from Cuomo.
“He was frozen,” said one longtime Democratic Party insider who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the governor.
That soon changed, culminating in a furious public schedule in June that Cuomo has largely kept up in July.
“He’s trying to make it look like everything is normal,” the Democratic source said.
Another Democrat said Cuomo seems to have become almost energized by the investigation. The last six weeks or so have lifted Cuomo’s spirits, as he has gotten out on the road and made several appearances in front of appreciative audiences, the source said.
The Governor’s Office dismissed the premise of this article. “Conspiracy theories are fun for reporters, but this one has no bearing on reality,” said Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.
He said the governor’s only strategy is to “build on what we achieved this session,” including an increase in the minimum wage, paid family leave, new breast cancer monitoring rules, and measures to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic.
“We will continue to move New York forward, and we hope to see you out there,” Azzopardi said.
Others believe that Cuomo’s summer schedule is driven by the governor’s work ethic instead of Bharara’s probe.
Still, in the period since his office was subpoenaed at the end of April, Cuomo has held 57 separate public events, up by 32 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to a review of his schedule.
His fleet of state-provided transportation options – airplane, helicopter, SUVs – has taken him to the woods of the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls and even a Cadillac showroom opening in Manhattan. He paddled a canoe at one event and marched in five parades downstate.
He and his girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee, have ridden on his motorcycle from Long Island to Buffalo to promote breast cancer awareness.
Cuomo has used some public events to opine on the murder of the Dallas police officers and the massacre at an Orlando, Fla., dance club. He has used others to promote the state’s alcohol, wine and beer industries, and still others to hand out cash for downtown redevelopment efforts in small cities and towns.
All this occurred after the Bharara investigation touched state agencies involved in economic development efforts and private companies that do big business with the state and have given donations to Cuomo. Federal prosecutors have also sought documents, according to a portion of the subpoena that The Buffalo News obtained in May, involving the actions of several current and former senior aides to Cuomo.
These include two longtime political advisers, Joseph Percoco and Todd R. Howe. Investigators raided their homes as part of Bharara’s probe, which might be partly revealed, depending on who you talk to, within weeks or months.
So going on the road and promoting positive news gets out a different message and gives Cuomo a chance to bask in the glow.
Two of his summer trips have been to Niagara Falls, where he announced money and improvements for the state park in June and later for the groundbreaking of a new hotel in July.
“I get the sense he feels good coming here,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said after the governor made his second appearance in Niagara Falls. “When he comes to Western New York, he gets a rousing welcome from people, and that’s got to make you feel better if you are under fire in some parts of your professional life. Why not hang out with people who appreciate you?”
Sometimes, celebrities tag along. Billy Joel, a Cuomo friend and occasional riding partner, joined the governor and Lee on part of their motorcycle ride for breast cancer awareness in late June.
And at Bethel Woods in Sullivan County, on the grounds that were home to the 1969 Woodstock concert, Cuomo in late June brought out Robert De Niro to help him promote the Catskills’ tourism industry.
One person who knows Cuomo says the governor often goes by a simple theory: get out in the public’s eye and fill the vacuum or it will be filled by someone else. This person believes Cuomo’s public events are merely driven by the governor’s work ethic. One crisis communications expert said people facing a public relations problem often have the same reaction: duck and cover. “It’s understandable, but it’s wrong,” said Risa Heller, who worked as top communications adviser to former Gov. David A. Paterson and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and who now owns a New York City-based firm that deals with crisis public relations.
“What happens when you get into the bunker mentality, especially when you have a dedicated press corps following you like the governor or mayor, is it allows the reporters to just continue to write about the bad news because you’re not giving them anything else,” she said. “And it allows everyone to sit around and wonder what you are hiding.”
The better option is getting out of Albany, making news and dealing – ever so briefly, in Cuomo’s case – with local reporters who don’t regularly cover his administration.
“If you are making news,” Heller said, “it will out the conjecture stories or whatever it is you don’t want people to write about.”