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SUNY Not Wholly to Blame for Cuomo Adm. Scandal, say Reformers

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said much of the responsibility for the alleged corruption scandal touching his administration is on the state university system, specifically SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which oversaw many of the contracts.

But reform groups say the governor is not telling the whole story.

Cuomo has made several public appearances since U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued criminal complaints against nine people, including several close to Cuomo and two major upstate real estate developers.

When asked about the blame for the alleged wrongdoing, Cuomo places much on it on the state university system.

“I appoint people to the state university board, but it’s not in my office, quote, unquote,” Cuomo said recently.

Cuomo said the process used for awarding contracts to private developers, which is now the focus of federal bid-rigging charges, was created before he was governor.

“That was the system that had been in place, and apparently it worked fine for 15 years,” the governor said.

John Kaehny with the coalition Reinvent Albany said it’s true that the nonprofit entities Fort Schuyler Management and Fuller Road Management that handle the contracts were not formed by Cuomo. They were created under former Gov. George Pataki, beginning in the 1990s, to help build the Albany Nanotech Center.

But Kaehny said their activities ramped up under Cuomo and expanded to include projects like the billion-dollar economic development plan for Buffalo, and millions of dollars of other high-tech projects across upstate New York.

“Those tax dollars were proposed in the governor’s budget by the governor,” said Kaehny, who said Cuomo “at best” was approving money to “out of control” nonprofits and not keeping a proper eye on things.

“And at worst, his administration had a part in this giant bid-rigging scandal,” Kaehny said.

The governor was not named in the criminal complaints.

Cuomo also has decried the lack of oversight of the SUNY Poly contracts for upstate development by the state comptroller, among others. And he has said he is turning all of the contracts over to his own Empire State Development authority, which routinely approves economic development projects where more checks and balances are required.

“We do thousands of projects that are then audited,” Cuomo said. “We have a state comptroller who goes through them; we have a New York state attorney general who approves every contract.”

But there’s a key part that Cuomo is leaving out, Kaehny said. The reason why the state comptroller did not review the Buffalo Billion and other contracts awarded by SUNY Polytechnic’s nonprofit entities is that Cuomo himself, in 2011, cut the comptroller out.

“The governor stripped the comptroller of the power to stop these bid-rigged contracts in his very first budget as governor,” Kaehny said. “When we look back now, we can see that was a huge problem.”

The Legislature went along with the change. Cuomo has had a rocky relationship with the state’s comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, at times viewing him as a political rival.

The governor said he’ll offer some proposals to revamp the state’s procurement process in his State of the State message in January.

“We’re going to have, for the State of the State, a reform package in terms of procurement, with more checks and balances,” Cuomo said.

Kaehny said the governor needs to do more than that. He said Cuomo needs to get input from other statewide elected officials, as well as the Legislature, first, and not “just propose something created in a black box that nobody else gets to see.”

Reinvent Albany recommends that one state agency be responsible for all contract decisions, and that it be totally transparent, instead of what Kaehny calls the present “shadow government” that’s been caught up in the federal bid-rigging scandal.