Nothing will stop the momentum of the Buffalo region, not even the corruption charges that have touched people close to him, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said here Friday.
“We will learn from this,” he said during his appearance at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. “We will be better for it, we will be stronger for it, and today we say, ‘We are not slowing down, we are speeding up. We are not doing less. We are doing more.’ ”
Despite personal anguish over allegations of wrongdoing by people he trusted, Cuomo said his commitment to the region has only grown stronger.
“I want you to know, personally, that these charges against these nine individuals will have absolutely nothing to do with the energy and the progress and the momentum of Western New York revitalization,” Cuomo said to enthusiastic applause. “I am committed to Western New York’s revitalization more than ever before. We are not going to miss a beat.”
The crowd of a couple hundred people in the auditorium at the Albright-Knox had gathered for the announcement of a $42.5 million private gift for the museum’s expansion plans. They gave Cuomo a friendly reception, including a standing ovation after he concluded.
But his upbeat remarks regarding the art gallery lacked genuine enthusiasm and he awkwardly segued into comments about U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s case of bribery, extortion and tax evasion against his longtime advisers and major donors. He appeared subdued and troubled as he recounted his reaction of disappointment and pain.
“The complaint spelled out a very disturbing and reprehensible story of possible misdeeds by these nine individuals,” he said. “The central plank of my administration has always been about public integrity and zero tolerance for any waste or abuse.”
He was particularly emotional about how longtime friend and adviser Joseph Percoco, the implicated person closest to Cuomo, would have broken his father’s heart if his father were still alive today.
In a later meeting with reporters, Cuomo said he knew of no other investigations targeting him or his staff and denied knowing anything about the alleged corruption.
“I had no idea,” he said.
In regard to questions about whether he influenced steering state development contracts to LPCiminelli, Cuomo said he did not interfere with the process, and there are no allegations that Percoco did, either.
The federal complaint outlined how Percoco squeezed people associated with the developer for bigger contributions to Cuomo’s campaign in 2013, prior to announcing the RiverBend Project. LPCiminelli, which has been accused of bribery, eventually won the $750 million contract for construction of the plant.
During his remarks to the audience and to reporters afterward, Cuomo attempted to salvage an image of personal integrity, law and order.
“We have to be clear and speak with one voice that any wrongdoing in state government will be punished severely,” he said. “As attorney general, I put people in jail for wrongdoing. And we’re going to work and cooperate 100 percent with this U.S. attorney. To the extent there was any wrongdoing, the justice will be sure, and the justice will be swift.”
Cuomo was unwavering in his message that the charges Bharara levied against Percoco and others would have no impact on the region’s continued growth.
But though he brandished words like “hope” and “possibility,” he did not show the same energy as on past occasions when he breezed through town eager to announce good news.
And in a later meeting with reporters, Cuomo was unusually restrained and tempered in his responses, offering few insights in the face of pointed questions about how his administration and his personal reputation might be damaged.
Instead, Cuomo focused on how Buffalo will move forward in the face of accusations that cast a shadow over his administration:
• He announced the suspension of SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain E. Kaloyeros, who oversaw the Buffalo Billion project and is now charged with bid-rigging, and said Howard Zemsky will now the manage the Buffalo Billion projects through the Empire State Development Corporation.
• He stated that a review has been done of the state’s procurement system and that the recommendations to fix weaknesses in awarding state contracts will all be accepted and implemented immediately.
• He said Zemsky will prepare a second phase to the Buffalo Billion program, and that he intends to unveil that in three months.
Finally, he returned to the message that the Buffalo Billion is not a failure because of the corruption allegations against nine men.
“The Buffalo Billion is not about just building projects,” he said. “The Buffalo Billion is about a fundamental transformation for Buffalo. It’s taking Buffalo from a place of cynicism to a place of hope, a place of frustration to a place of possibility, a place of competing with each other to a place of collaborating with each other.
“Whereas instead of focusing on the past, and dwelling on the past, and living in the past, Buffalo is now planning for the future and acting for the future. That’s what the Buffalo Billion is all about, and it is working.”
In a possible Freudian slip that resulted in some giggles from the audience, he said, “The Buffalo Billion is about a great group of people who worked tirelessly and selfishly for years to put together the plan and make it happen.”