ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo will donate to unnamed charities more than $500,000 in campaign contributions made by individuals – including Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli – who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in two corruption cases this year.
Cuomo has been under mounting political pressure to return the donations, and the announcement of his decision came just hours after he was accused by Cynthia Nixon, his Democratic primary opponent, of manufacturing a grass roots donation effort by small-dollar donors.
The Cuomo campaign said $534,000 in donations Cuomo received over the years from Ciminelli, Syracuse developer Steven Aiello – convicted in a bid-rigging case – and former lobbyist Todd Howe will be given to charities that deal with immigrant legal defense, women’s reproductive health rights and Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts.
Howe, a longtime Cuomo insider, had pleaded in September 2016 to various felonies for his role in the Buffalo Billion and other schemes.
Campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said the money will be disbursed in coming days. She said the funds were segregated into an account separate from Cuomo’s main gubernatorial campaign account, which reported Tuesday it had $31.1 million on hand.
A jury last week convicted Ciminelli and Aiello, along with Syracuse developer Joseph Gerardi and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute leader Alain Kaloyeros, of engaging in a bid-rigging operation involving projects in Buffalo and central New York. Earlier this year, longtime Cuomo confidante Joseph Percoco was convicted in a bribery trial.
In the aftermath, Cuomo said he was still pondering what to do with the donations made by Ciminelli and Aiello, as well as family members and others connected to them. He said he was going to reach out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, which prosecuted the cases, for advice about what to do with the donations.
That idea prompted a response from Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor who brought the Buffalo Billion cases in 2016.
“Federal prosecutors don’t give such guidance. But former federal prosecutors can – just return the money,’’ Bharara tweeted to Cuomo.
Nixon’s campaign criticized Cuomo for taking so long to unload the money.
“Just days ago, the governor ridiculously stated that the Buffalo Billion trial had 'nothing to do with any campaign donations.' It took 5 days of pressure from Cynthia Nixon and good government advocates like former US Attorney Preet Bharara for Cuomo to finally admit that the corruption trial had everything to do with his donations and finally return the money,’’ said Nixon campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.
The Nixon spokeswoman said Cuomo now needs to return other donations, including what she said was $400,000 in donations from people associated with a health care group under investigation by the FBI and $64,000 he accepted from Donald Trump before he was president.
“To be fair, when you’re bought and paid for by Republicans and corporate interests as Governor Cuomo, it’s hard to find where to draw the line,’’ Hitt said.
Cuomo snapped last week at a reporter who asked about the Buffalo Billion trial and the timing and size of campaign donations by people like Ciminelli. The governor said donations had nothing to do with the trial.
Prosecutors prior to the trial said they wanted to introduce evidence about donations to Cuomo’s campaign but ended up not doing so.
Besides more than $100,000 in direct donations from Ciminelli or family members to Cuomo, prosecutors said Ciminelli in 2013 – while the bidding process was underway for the Buffalo Billion program his company was later awarded – hosted a fundraiser for Cuomo at his Buffalo home that netted the governor more than $250,000.
Collins, the Cuomo campaign spokeswoman, did not immediately respond when asked for a breakdown of the $534,000 in donations made by Ciminelli, the Syracuse developer and Howe.