Buffalo Billion vote puts pressure on lawmakers

Officials prepare to break ground at SolarCity construction site
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ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said repeatedly: It’s too soon to draw any conclusions about the federal investigation surrounding his administration’s major economic-development programs.

Those in charge of the state Legislature, however, will soon have to make a determination of their own.
The Public Authorities Control Board, a little-known but powerful board, is set to meet Wednesday at the state Capitol. The board is scheduled to consider whether to approve spending nearly half a billion dollars to fund ongoing construction at a high-tech complex that will house a massive solar-power manufacturing plant in the state’s second-largest city.

The plant, which will be occupied by SolarCity, is the marquee item of the Buffalo Billion, a Cuomo-backed program to spend $1 billion to help boost Buffalo and its surroundings. The initiative has been at the center of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s ongoing investigation.

Now, the state’s legislative leaders are faced with approving spending for a project that has attracted interest from federal prosecutors or pause the spending and threaten to slow down a project whose developers have promised will create 3,000 jobs.

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The board has three voting members, any one of which can block the spending: One representing Cuomo’s office, one representing Assembly Democrats and the third representing Senate Republicans.

“I think we’ll do our due diligence. I would assume the Senate will do their due diligence on it,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx. “On the merits, there’s a belief that it’s a worthwhile project and we’ll just continue to do our due diligence. We don’t want to see worthwhile projects end.”

Both Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans have sought more information about the solar manufacturing site project and the spending, which was original set to be put to a vote last week before it was abruptly postponed.

Technically speaking, the Public Authority Control Board’s charge is narrow: It’s supposed to approve projects if there are sufficient funds available to pay for the acquisition and construction of a project led by a state authority.
But since the board’s approval is needed to send the money along – in this case, to a non-profit controlled by the SUNY Polytechnic Institute – any of its voting members can delay the spending by threatening to vote against it.

“Do you want this kind of board making judgments of the wisdom of the projects or its integrity?” said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Greenburgh Democrat who championed reforms for public authorities. “That’s not what it is set up to do, but sometimes common sense says: ‘Maybe we ought to spend some time looking at this.’”

Cuomo’s counsel last month acknowledged that Bharara’s office has been examining potential “improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest” surrounding the Buffalo Billion and other economic-development projects headed by the SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

The investigation has appeared to center on former Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco, who was paid consulting fees by a Syracuse-area developer and Albany-based engineering firm in 2014, and lobbyist Todd Howe, who represented LP Ciminelli -- one of two contractors building the SolarCity plant -- and the firms that paid Percoco.

The SUNY Polytechnic Institute, through a pair of non-profits, led much of the contracting for the Buffalo Billion and other economic-development projects in the state. It’s also the lead administrator of the AIM Photonics Institute in Rochester, a joint federal-state project awarded to the area last year.

Speaking to reporters in Rochester, Cuomo said the Buffalo Billion has been a “godsend” for the city, which has seen a spurt of construction downtown in recent years.

Cuomo said former federal prosecutor Bart Schwartz, an independent investigator hired by Cuomo’s office, has been tasked with reviewing every dollar spent in his economic-development programs, including the money the Public Authorities Control Board is being asked to approve.

“We have zero tolerance for any fraud or abuse and if we find anybody guilty of any wrongdoing, we will be vehement in our enforcement and I’ve shown that all my life,” Cuomo said. “At the same time, the program is working and it’s doing good things and it’s generating jobs and Buffalo needs jobs.”

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said the conference has “asked for additional information” ahead of the Public Authorities Control Board vote.

“Once we receive that information, we will thoroughly evaluate it,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Erie County Republican whose district stretches into Monroe County, said the SolarCity plant is a “viable project moving forward.”

“In answer to the simple question, should the project be held up?” Gallivan said Wednesday on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a public-radio program. “I think the answer is no.”