Cuomo defends Buffalo Billion in wake of criminal complaint

In Buffalo on Friday to celebrate a multimillion-dollar donation to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made an extraordinary move: He addressed the art supporters and politicians gathered about the criminal complaint that had rocked the New York political world the day before.

Referring to, but not naming, his former top aide and longtime friend Joe Percoco – one of the nine defendants in the wide-ranging bribery, bid-rigging and fraud case brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office – he said the revelation of possible misdeeds spelled out in the complaint were “disturbing” and “deeply disappointing,” echoing language from a press release his office issued hours after the indictment was unsealed.

“The central plank of my administration has always been public integrity and zero tolerance for any waste, fraud or abuse,” Cuomo said. “If anything, I hold a friend to a higher standard.”

Cuomo insisted the indictment was isolated to the alleged actions of the defendants, and shouldn’t be held against the Buffalo Billion, his signature economic development program upstate, and the Riverbend project, its largest single project and the focus of the federal investigation, where SolarCity plans to begin making solar panels next year.

The connections drawn by the press between the Buffalo Billion and the indictment, Cuomo said, have made him more determined to press forward with the investments he has made in Western New York.

“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’s revitalization,” Cuomo said to loud applause. “I want you to know that I am more committed to Western New York than ever before. I want you to know that we are not going to miss a beat.”

He said the negative commentary discounts the most important part of the initiative, which is not a particular building or project, but rather that investors, residents and outsiders no longer view Buffalo as a post-industrial, politically toxic relic of the past. Now, he said, the region is viewed as a model for economic turnaround.

“The Buffalo Billion is about a fundamental transformation for Buffalo,” Cuomo said. “It is 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 collaborating with each other.”

In an effort to prove that commitment, Cuomo also tasked Empire State Development boss Howard Zemsky with planning what the governor described as “phase two of Western New York’s revitalization.”

Zemsky will submit a plan for further investment and development in the region by the end of the year, to be outlined at Cuomo’s State of the State address next year, the governor said.

As the head of Empire State Development, Zemsky will also now oversee the operations of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, since the institute’s executive director, Alain Kaloyeros, was suspended from his position after being charged in separate federal and state indictments this week.

“We want to redouble our effort,” Cuomo said.

After the event, Cuomo found a less friendly crowd waiting downstairs, as reporters grilled him about the allegations outlined in the federal complaint and the proximity of many of the defendants to his office.

Asked whether the alleged bid-rigging tied to the Riverbend project would change public perception of the larger Buffalo Billion initiative, Cuomo reiterated that the charges shouldn’t be a reflection of the larger picture.

“The Buffalo Billion is not about nine people,” Cuomo said.

And when pressed about whether he knew anything about the alleged actions of Percoco and the others, the governor denied any knowledge of a scheme. He also distanced himself from Kaloyeros, pointing out that he had worked with several administrations before Cuomo took office.

“No, I had no idea about anything that was contained in that complaint,” Cuomo said, calling the dealings outlined “secondary and tertiary.”

Still, under a barrage of questions, the even-tempered Cuomo fought to put a good face on the situation. When asked how he could say that things are going well despite local job numbers that, while growing, are lagging behind the rest of the country, the governor said that while things aren’t perfect, they’re improving, and that he’ll continue to work to make sure they continue in a positive direction.

“Things are better and it’s the first time things are better in a long, long time,” he said. “If you want to say that every glass is half empty, then every glass is half empty. We’re not done, but things are better.”