ALBANY - A high-powered non-profit overseeing the Buffalo Billion and other major state economic-development projects has declined to allow the public to sit in on its board meeting Tuesday.
The Fort Schuyler Management Corp., which is closely affiliated with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, is scheduled to have its quarterly board meeting via conference call Tuesday, according to David Doyle, a SUNY Poly vice president.
Reporters and members of the public will not be permitted to listen in, he said.
The meeting comes as several major projects associated with SUNY Poly and Fort Schuyler have come under federal investigation, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office acknowledging that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is examining potential bid-rigging.
Fort Schuyler has a real-estate portfolio worth billions, acting as SUNY Poly's landlord for facilities in Utica, Syracuse and Buffalo, including a still-under-construction SolarCity manufacturing plant that the state put $750 million toward. The plant is the centerpiece of the Buffalo Billion program, a pledge from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to spend $1 billion in public funds to boost the state's second-largest city.
The state's Open Meetings Law requires "every meeting of a public body" to be "open to the general public." It doesn't allow telephone conferencing for a meeting, but does allow videoconferencing if the public has an area to attend.
Fort Schuyler has contended, however, that it is not a public body, but rather a private, not-for-profit corporation, despite its close affiliation with the SUNY Poly and SUNY research foundations, which appoint the members of the board.
The SUNY Research Foundation, meanwhile, covers the cost of Fort Schuyler's staff, according to IRS forms.
While the Fort Schuyler board was not expected to vote on any issues Tuesday, previous meeting records show the board regularly receives updates on its major projects at its quarterly meetings.
In a statement, Doyle said Fort Schuyler "operates in a fashion consistent with other New York not-for-profit organizations, including SUNY-affiliated corporations, and its processes are governed by federal and state rules and regulations."
"Fort Schuyler Management Corp. promotes openness and transparency of its decision-making, operations, processes and finances, all of which are subject to on-going public oversight, including oversight by a number of public authorities and agencies such as Empire State Development Corp., Public Authorities Control Board, and the New York state Comptroller," Doyle said.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said he believes it's clear Fort Schuyler falls under the Open Meetings Law.
Last year, Freeman wrote an advisory opinion finding Fort Schuyler was subject to the state's Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, which allows members of the public to request and receive government records.
"My belief is if indeed Fort Schuyler is subject to FOIL, the meetings of its board are subject to the Open Meetings Law, as well," Freeman said Tuesday. "That would mean they could not conduct a meeting by telephone."
Freeman's advisory opinion last year was written at the request of The Investigative Post and WGRZ-TV, which was then owned by Gannett Co. Inc. Ultimately, Fort Schuyler posted documents that were requested under FOIL after a lawsuit was filed.
In his opinion, Freeman wrote that Fort Schuyler amounts to a state "agency" and should be required to comply with the open-records law.
He pointed to a 1980 case brought by Westchester-Rockland Newspapers, a collection of Gannett papers that were the predecessor to The Journal News, that found volunteer fire companies were subject to FOIL, despite their status as a not-for-profit corporation.
Fort Schuyler has contracts and agreements with major developers across upstate New York, including COR Development, a Syracuse-based developer that has built SUNY Poly-operated facilities in central New York.
Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, listed receiving up to $75,000 from COR in 2014 when he was serving as Cuomo's campaign manager, according to Percoco's disclosure forms. COR denies paying him.
In September 2014, Fort Schuyler picked The Pike Co. and LeChase Construction to become the non-profit's preferred developers in the Rochester area, though no work has come from the agreement yet. Eight days later, LeChase CEO Wayne LeChase contributed $25,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign and Pike President Rufus Judson contributed $10,000, state records show.
Pike and LeChase have both denied any connection between the contract and the donations.