Some of Cuomo's trusted deputies and campaign supporters were rounded up in a corruption probe that spanned from Manhattan to Albany to Syracuse to Buffalo
By LOUIS FLORES
In a corruption bust that ranged from Manhattan, where a former top Cuomo administration official, Joseph Percoco was primarily based ; to Albany, where an affiliate of a State University of New York institute was headquartered that was the reported source of bid-rigging by an academic administrator, Alain Kaloyeros ; to Syracuse, where two real estate development executives, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, were based ; to the western reaches of New York State, where a Buffalo-area businessman, Louis Ciminelli was based, prosecutors on Monday unsealed Federal corruption charges against nine individuals with close ties to the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York).
During a press conference on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought the criminal charges, was asked to describe whether New York State's capital had changed since the career prosecutors in his office had begun to prosecute political and campaign corruption cases against Albany officials. Instead of providing a direct answer to the question, the nation's top Federal prosecutor for New York's southern district described how his own view of the problem of corruption had shifted.
". . . If we prove the allegations in this case," U.S. Attorney Bharara said, "It's not just about particular transgressions on the part of particular people, but a systemic problem," adding that, "So, you have not just one person doing something wrong, we allege, but a whole system and network of folks -- insiders and corporate executives -- with respect to huge infrastructure projects and development projects in the state. So, it's not small stuff," further adding, in part, "This is big-time stuff, and it goes to the core of how I think State Government operates, and it's distressing and disconcerting."
The allegations in the criminal charges against the nine defendants included corrupt acts undertaken for self-enrichment that involved a proposed $900 million manufacturing facility in upstate New York and the $1 billion economic program championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) for western New York known as the "Buffalo Billion."
The career Federal prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Bharara spent approximately one year building a case based on two central schemes : the first centered around alleged efforts by Mr. Percoco and his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, to enrich themselves from companies doing business with New York State ; and the second centered around alleged efforts by public officials and private sector executives to rig the bids for the Buffalo Billion economic development program. Some of the alleged wrong-doing began as early as 2012, according to some of the facts recounted in the 79-page complaint filed against eight of the nine defendants.
Yet, for the three years prior to the when Federal prosecutors began their investigation, it is not know what the District Attorneys in Manhattan, Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo were doing about the corruption that was allegedly taking place in their respective jurisdictions.
According to the criminal complaint that listed Mr. Percoco as a defendant, he was based in Manhattan, and the acts Mr. Percoco allegedly undertook to engage in conspiracy to commit extortion began in 2012. The municipal prosecutor in Manhattan is District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-New York County). Advance questions submitted by Progress Queens late Thursday evening for this report were not answered by Friday afternoon. Should the Manhattan District Attorney's Office provide answers to the advance questions, that information will appear in a subsequent report.
Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, the affiliate of the SUNY institute presided over by Mr. Kaloyeros that was responsible for handing out the Buffalo Billion development contracts, was based in Albany. According to the eight-defendant, Federal criminal complaint, the alleged acts in which Mr. Kaloyeros participated that constituted wire fraud conspiracy began in 2013. The municipal prosecutor in there is District Attorney David Soares (D-Albany County), who has been in office since 2005. District Attorney Soares served on the short-lived, anti-corruption investigation panel known as the Moreland Commission, which had been formed by Gov. Cuomo in response to the increasing number of corruption prosecutions being brought at that time then by the office of U.S. Attorney Bharara.
Both Mr. Aiello and Mr. Girardi represent COR Development Co., a Syracuse-based, real estate development company that allegedly paid bribes to Mr. Percoco in exchange for his alleged assistance to, amongst other things, reverse an unfavourable decision by the Empire State Development Corporation, a State-sponsored company that provides subsidies to the private sector, according to the allegations in the eight-defendant, Federal criminal complaint. The payments of bribes allegedly took place between 2014 and 2015, according to the Federal criminal complaint. The municipal prosecutor in that jurisdiction is District Attorney William Fitzpatrick (D-Onondaga County), a former co-chair of the now-defunct Moreland Commission. In 2014, District Attorney Fitzpatrick denied allegations made in a bombshell report published by The New York Times that the administration of Gov. Cuomo interfered with the work of the Moreland Commission.
Mr. Ciminelli's corporation, LPCiminelli Inc., is based in Buffalo, and it employed two executives, who were also charged in the Federal criminal complaint : Michael Laipple and Keven Schuler. The alleged acts undertaken by the three businessmen to pay bribes began in 2013, according to the Federal criminal complaint. The municipal prosecutor in Buffalo is Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty, Jr. (D-Erie County), who assumed the top municipal prosecutor's role in January 2016 after his predecessor, Frank Sedita, III, was elected to become a New York State Supreme Court justice. A former member of the now-scuttled Moreland Commission, Mr. Sedita was faulted by Buffalo-area civic attorney Mark Sacha for not doing enough to root out corruption in Government.
At a 2015 press conference at New York Law School announcing the arrest of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), U.S. Attorney Bharara was asked by Government reform activist Scott Caplan to account for the absence of corruption cases brought by District Attorneys. U.S. Attorney Bharara defended the record of District Attorney Vance, Jr., by saying, in part, "The Manhattan District Attorney and I get along very well, and he’s, I think, a terrific prosecutor and has done a lot of important cases."
However, the personality of District Attorneys is not a fair barometer of their willingness to prosecute corruption, and if the corruption is as "systemic" as U.S. Attorney Bharara has described it, then so is the abdication by County District Attorneys of their duties to prosecute corruption.
As noted in a 2014 editorial published by Progress Queens, potential conflicts of interest may have encumbered District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens County) from investigating irregularities at a now-defunct nonprofit group, Corona-Elmhurst Center for Economic Development, affiliated with New York State Assemblymember José Peralta (D-Queens). Because District Attorneys run for office with the consent and support of the Democratic Party County Committees, District Attorneys may not be in an autonomous position to prosecute political or campaign finance corruption by the very County leaders who provide support to District Attorneys.
Since at least 2014, Progress Queens has been trying to determine why have Federal prosecutors tolerated the systemic conflicts of interest facing New York City's District Attorneys. Previous requests for interviews or for answers to advance questions submitted by Progress Queens have never been answered by the press office for U.S. Attorney Bharara.
For his part, Gov. Cuomo issued a statement on Thursday to some in the press in which he wrote, in part, "I learned this morning of the charges filed by the U.S. Attorney's office that include a former member of my administration. If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed."
Despite Gov. Cuomo's expression of sadness, he took no time to express remorse for having prematurely shuttered the Moreland Commission, which was reported to have begun investigating corruption by real estate developers in the time before its abrupt closure.
During the press conference on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Bharara said that he hoped that there would be a trial in the wide-ranging, Federal corruption case filed against Cuomo administration loyalists "so that all New Yorkers could see in gory detail what their State Government had been up to."
It is not known if Federal prosecutors plan to highlight during trial the role of District Attorneys abdicating their responsibility to investigate and prosecute political and campaign finance corruption in their respective jurisdictions.