That rumble you heard Thursday was a cannonball slamming into the Albany Way of Things. Preet Bharara fired it.
Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has made a name for himself as the scourge of official corruption in this state, and on Thursday he took aim at the way contracts are let around the state, including in Buffalo. Among those charged are Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo; Alain Kaloyeros, the head of SUNY Polytechnic in Albany; and Louis Ciminelli, a prominent Buffalo contractor.
Another target of the investigation, Todd Howe, pleaded guilty in the case on Tuesday. That’s never a good sign for others who are charged. Howe, a former lobbyist with an Albany-based firm, had faced eight charges, including tax evasion, extortion, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery.
The most important point of this investigation is to know the truth of the allegations, regardless of where they lead. Presuming those charged to be innocent, as is their right, it is nevertheless true that New Yorkers have paid a high price for generations of official corruption. Residents of the state have a compelling interest in bringing it to heel.
But it is also important to Western New Yorkers that it not significantly interfere with the rollout of Buffalo Billion programs, especially the RiverBend project. Ciminelli’s company, LPCiminelli, is the lead contractor for RiverBend. It is the most expensive of the Buffalo Billion projects and, more than any other, stands to create an entirely new high-tech economy in Buffalo. The plant, nearing completion in South Buffalo, will be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere.
Indeed, the charges don’t implicate the project, itself, only the way that contracts were let. In that regard, the charge against Ciminelli and other company leaders is that they “conspired” with Howe and Kaloyeros to “defraud” Fort Schuyler, a not-for-profit entity the state created to oversee the Buffalo Billion. Specifically, the Ciminelli executives are accused of bribing Howe to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other contractors seeking work through the Buffalo Billion program.
Ciminelli’s lawyer said no crime has been committed.
While the Western New York economic development program is a prominent factor in the charges announced Thursday, the investigation is more broadly based. Percoco, for example, has no connection to the Buffalo Billion, and Fort Schuyler also oversaw a program in Syracuse.
It’s dismaying, anyway, both as further evidence of the nature of this corrupt state and for whatever threat it may pose to Buffalo’s economic revival. On that score, it is uncertain how the case will affect the Buffalo Billion program, but there is cause for both cautious optimism and concern.
On the positive side, construction of the RiverBend plant is nearly complete. The state’s $750 million investment is so far along that it is unlikely to be affected by the charges. As of last month, SolarCity, which will occupy the plant, was expected to be producing solar panels by June.
Of greater concern is the effect of the charges against Kaloyeros, whose work has been key to the high-tech explosion in Albany. The Buffalo Billion program was patterned on the success in Albany and relied, to some extent, on Kaloyeros’ knowledge and connections. Kaloyeros has been suspended, and the uncertain status of his office has the potential to impact the plant over the long term.
Nevertheless, New Yorkers from Buffalo to Brooklyn have reason to encourage Bharara in his pursuit of official corruption and the many ways it degrades the fabric of life in this state. He has taken down former leaders of the Senate and Assembly who were using their positions to line their own pockets and gone after rank-and-file members who abused the trust voters placed in them.
Many people could end up in prison as a result of Bharara’s investigations, and it makes you shake your head: Why is it so hard for politically connected people to obey the law in this state?