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Editorial: State’s attempted no-bid purchase of helicopter sends the wrong message

If Albany has learned anything over the past several months, it should have been that when elected officials are spending state money, process matters.

The purpose can be good – as in acquiring a helicopter to be used by State Police and the governor – but if the process for doing it is bad – as in a no-bid contract – then eyebrows will rightly be raised. That was always so, but is especially true today.

In light of federal indictments relating to alleged contract irregularities involving several large development projects around the state, it is no shock that State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli put his foot down.

State Police put in the request for a used, Sikorsky S76-D helicopter, describing the model as the only currently available aircraft that meets its needs, including state-of-the-art emergency response and law enforcement missions. In addition, the helicopter would be used to transport the governor. Cuomo administration officials said taxpayers would save almost $4 million by purchasing a used model instead of a new one or a used-though-not-flown one.

It all sounds fine. State Police need a reliable helicopter and assigning it the double duty of transporting Cuomo adds to its usefulness. But DiNapoli refused to sign off on the purchase because the state circumvented the bidding process that is meant, over the long term, to protect the interests of taxpayers. Even if this proposed purchase saves taxpayers $4 million, far more than that stands to be lost over time by failing to seek bids for projects.

The recent federal investigation began when the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara began looking into the bidding process for construction of the RiverBend project in South Buffalo. Indictments handed up last month accuse LPCiminelli officials of making payoffs to a state consultant to ensure the company would be the state’s “preferred developer” for the sprawling project along the Buffalo River. Most of those charged have pleaded not guilty, though one person has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Elected officials should always be careful with public dollars, of course, and follow established rules. But it seems especially wise, in the glare of recent felony indictments and screaming headlines, to toe the line. Why is that so difficult?

It’s possible, of course, to game the system even with competitive bidding. Indeed, that is the allegation in the RiverBend case: that the request for bids was tailored in a way to benefit LPCiminelli and to discourage other contractors from bidding.

These rules exist for a reason. If the State Police and Cuomo need this helicopter – and we have no reason to doubt they do – then go about it in the right way. Solicit the bids. If the used Sikorsky is truly the best deal, that will become obvious.

If taxpayers somehow end up on the hook for more money than this, at least the process was clean and, over the long haul, far more likely to benefit the public than are arrangements in which officeholders make the deals they want while testing the public’s waning supply of trust.

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