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Cuomo touts Buffalo Billion, says he has no idea about any federal probes



Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an address before the state’s business leaders,  promoted his economic development plans, including the Buffalo Billion initiative, and fended off questions on reports that some of the projects are under investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Cuomo, who was well received by business leaders meeting at the Sagamore Resort on Lake George, gave a presentation focusing on his successes in building up the upstate economy, including the Buffalo Billion project, which has received praise and credit for helping turn around the state’s second largest city.

“Buffalo was the most pessimistic community about their economic future five years ago,” said Cuomo. “Today, Buffalo is the most optimistic, tied with Manhattan.”

But putting a damper on the rosy picture painted by the governor are reports, including one in the New York Post, that says Bharara is investigating the awarding of state contracts to businesses involved in the Buffalo Billion project, including the massive Solar City factory and other projects, possibly with an eye toward campaign contributions to the governor.

Cuomo, speaking with reporters afterward, says he isn’t aware of any probe.

“I have no idea,” said Cuomo who said no one from his office has been subpoenaed.

The governor says he’s also unaware of a report in theNew York Daily News that says SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which is involved in some of the business deals, has also been subpoenaed, and has hired a criminal defense attorney. But he says he has “total confidence” in the leader of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros.

SUNY Polytechnic issued a statement later in the day, that did not dispute the Daily News report, but spokesman Gerry Gretzinger clarified that no one at the college is believed to be a target of the probe. 

"The facts are clear: The Buffalo Billion will result in nearly 14,000 good paying and sustainable jobs in Western New York, $8 billion in new private investment and has changed the path of Buffalo now and for generations to come.We are confident that all processes regarding SUNY Poly projects in Buffalo were done appropriately.To our knowledge, neither SUNY Poly nor any of its employees are the target of any investigation,” the statement said. 

Cuomo warns not to read too much into any investigations.

“I was the former attorney general,” Cuomo said. “You can have investigations. That does not mean there’s any there there or that anyone did anything wrong.”

The state’s Republican Party Chairman, Ed Cox, who attended the Business Council meeting and heard Cuomo’s speech says he disagrees with policy to award the bulk of the billion dollars slated for Buffalo to Elon Musk’s Solar City company.

“Why is $750 million of taxpayers funds going into building a building  and equipping it that’s going to produce one product, yet untested commercially, and the company is owned by a billionaire." Cox said. “That does not make sense for economic development.”

As for campaign contributions from developers who receive state funds, Cox says there should be greater disclosure in real time so that everyone can determine if there’s a conflict of interest.

Cuomo also pitched his $15 minimum wage increase proposal to business leaders, saying it will include sweeteners like tax breaks to offset costs.

“You could wind up with a win win here,” Cuomo told them.

One day earlier, the president of the state’s Business Council said her group is working to include some of those offsets in a minimum wage bill that has a chance of passing in the state legislature in 2016.  

The governor says he can’t immediately raise the minimum wage for state workers, though, unless he renegotiates union contracts.  

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.