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Cuomo puts gambling and convention center agreement on hold

Now that Governor Andrew Cuomo has confirmed that a deal with a major gambling company to build a convention center in Queens has fallen through, Cuomo says he’s opening up the bids to more companies.

The governor’s change  of plans come amid reports that the gambling company Genting contributed over two million dollars to a lobbying group closely associated with the governor.

Cuomo first announced late on a Friday, on a radio show hosted by former Governor David Paterson, that the centerpiece of Cuomo’s State of the State proposal back in January had fallen through.

The governor explained Monday how a deal with the Malaysian-based gambling conglomerate Genting to build a giant convention center and casino in Queens had disintegrated.

Shortly afterward, the New York Times reported that a lobbying group closely associated with Cuomo had received two million dollars from Genting last December, just as the governor was putting together his priorities for the new year, which included the Genting convention center proposal.

Cuomo, who spoke several hours before the newspaper published the story on the monetary contributions, says he ended the deal with Genting because the gambling corporation wanted guarantees that if it built a casino, it would not face competition from other gambling parlors built nearby. Genting already runs limited slot-like machine gambling at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, known as a racino.

Cuomo says he could not offer that assurance, because New York has not yet even legalized casino gambling. The governor says he “understands their point."

“They can’t be in a position where they then have to compete with a casino in their backyard,” Cuomo said. “We didn’t have a good way around that.”

The legislature approved first passage of a constitutional amendment  to permit gambling earlier this year, but it needs the approval of two consecutively elected legislatures, plus the voters, so the earliest casinos could be allowed would be late in 2013.

Cuomo now says he wants to see the constitutional amendment passed first, then open up the bidding from gambling companies.

The New York Times reports that the Committee to Save New York, a lobbying group of primarily business interests that has run ad campaigns to support the governor’s positions, received the two million dollars from Genting in December. Just a few weeks later, Cuomo announced his plan for Genting to build the Queens convention center. The company wrote a non-binding letter of commitment in January to create the project. In the article, a Cuomo spokesman denied any connection between the two events. 

Bill Mahoney, a campaign finance analyst with the New York Public Interest Research Group,  says the article illustrates the close ties  between Cuomo and the Committee to Save New York lobby group.

 “The fact that this story also reveals that Governor Cuomo directly referred [Genting] to donate money directly to the Committee to Save New York shows that they’re very comfortable working together,” said Mahoney.  

The governor, in a question-and-answer session with reporters, sought to put more space between himself and Genting, saying it was really his predecessor, Governor David Paterson, who forged the deal for Genting to run the racino at the Queens Aqueduct Racetrack. 

“Remember, Genting was picked under Governor Paterson,” said Cuomo. “So I had no prior knowledge of that.”

 Cuomo says there was a lot of suspicion over the first round of gaming contracts awarded to run the racinos with the slot-like machines at the race tracks. He says this time, now that the deal with Genting is on hold, he wants he wants to do the "exact opposite" and open the process to wider bidding.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.