The grand auditorium of the soon-to-be-renamed Albright-Knox Art Gallery represented just the setting that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo typically revels in.
Several hundred invited guests. Ten million dollars in state money to complement billionaire Jeffrey Gundlach’s gift of $42 million to the museum. Yes, a mention of the scandal throwing Cuomo’s administration into disarray. But that was a mere bump in the road compared to Buffalo’s giant steps from “pessimism to optimism.”
Two standing ovations. All’s right with the world.
But then Cuomo descended a flight of stairs into the art gallery’s cafe, where 26 reporters and cameras lined up to grill him. A firing squad comparison might be a bit strong, but not out of line. It was one of the worst days of Cuomo’s six years as governor.
Following the arrests Thursday of nine men on federal corruption charges – including three close associates – the governor received no standing ovations downstairs. Instead, he was pelted with sometimes brutal questions about Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s charges of bid-rigging and bribery.
The questions pertained to dark shadows cast over his signature Buffalo Billion economic development program and the massive SolarCity solar panel factory it has funded.
How did this happen? How did you not know about the involvement of Joe Percoco, a close friend of the Cuomo family for 25 years? Are you a target of the probe? Is bid-rigging and bribery part of every state contract? Is the Buffalo Billion program tarnished, if not threatened?
Give Cuomo credit. He ventured to ground zero in the Bharara probe to offer his reassurances. He stayed on message. He denied any personal responsibility and emphasized he is not the target of any probe.
Instead he blamed it on the system, and he pointed to the Buffalo Billion program being reassigned to Howard A. Zemsky, the local businesssman who heads the Empire State Development Corp. and is the governor’s trusted economic development guru.
The Buffalo Billion will survive and prosper, Cuomo said, and the promises of SolarCity and the rest of the program will be kept.
“The charges against these nine individuals will have nothing to do with Western New York’s revitalization,” he said. “We are more committed than ever before to not missing a beat.
“Howard’s first move will be to learn how this happened and make sure it never happens again,” he added.
If there was sadness, if there was remorse, Cuomo expressed it in personal terms and not about the conduct of his government. The arrest of Percoco, about as close as anyone to Cuomo and his late father – former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo – obviously hit home.
“The allegations are truly disappointing,” he said about his friend. “It’s the first time since we lost my father that I don’t miss him being here because it would have broken his heart.
“I saw (Percoco’s) children grow up, so it will be a painful experience to go through,” he added.
But Cuomo also was asked if he recognized any of his own mistakes, and whether he should offer apologies for what occurred on his watch.
He sidestepped any reference to personal responsibility, returning to the failure of the system.
“It was a systematic issue. The project was managed by the SUNY system,” he said, referring to the university system controlled by his appointees. “We will transfer it to ESD and it will be a different process.”
He insisted that Alain Kaloyeros, president of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute and one of those named in Bharara’s complaint, was not a “top lieutenant.” He pointed out that Kaloyeros, often seen at Cuomo’s side for announcements of major economic development projects, had worked for several previous governors.
“I had no idea about anything that was contained in that complaint,” he said, adding that he was puzzled by Bharara’s description of the Buffalo Billion as “tainted.”
“The building is going to proceed, the company will move in, the jobs will be created,” he said. “On a separate track, there will be a trial.”
For Cuomo, the bigger picture continues to surround Buffalo’s revitalization. The state has proved a major catalyst, he said, assisting projects like Canalside, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the SolarCity plant with the creation of 1,500 jobs across the state. But there was no mention of the company’s continuing profitability problems.
For Cuomo, it will be all good. It remains his mantra – that fixing this Rust Belt mess is now the model for others because Albany finally paid attention.
Arrests of his close aides and “taints” of his signature program will not deter that success story. The Buffalo Billion, he said, is about a “fundamental transformation.”
“What you have done here is remarkable,” he said. “Buffalo has gone from a national symbol of decline to a national symbol of possibility.”
Cuomo received one of his standing ovations as he expressed those sentiments in the auditorium, then faced his more cynical audience among reporters.
As Bharara’s prosecution proceeds and more details of the pay-to-play schemes are revealed, the governor will face more unpleasant days like the one he experienced in Buffalo on Friday.