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Cuomo says he's not defensive about Buffalo Billion probe

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York City Tuesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says a key vote on the next installment of the Buffalo Billion project is merely postponed, not canceled, and he denies that he’s feeling defensive about the widening federal probe of his administration’s economic development projects.

An obscure board controlled by Cuomo and the legislative leaders, known as the Public Authority Control Board, put off a meeting where they would have considered approving nearly $500,000 as part of the controversial Buffalo Billion project. The Buffalo Billion is now the target of a federal probe that may extend to other economic development projects.

Legislative leaders on Monday would not commit to a yes vote on the projects.

Cuomo, speaking to reporters in New York City Tuesday for the first time in a week, said he’s not feeling defensive about the widening probe. The Buffalo News, among other publications, reports that over two dozen companies involved in New York state economic development projects have been subpoenaed. The governor tried to downplay its significance, comparing it to numerous investigations he said he began back when he was attorney general.

“As attorney general, I started all sorts of investigations,” said Cuomo. “By the way, the overwhelming majority of the investigations I started never led to a case.”

Cuomo says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara may just be doing the same thing.

“You get a tip, god bless you, follow it up,” Cuomo said.

Bharara’s track record so far has been better than Cuomo’s as attorney general. Bharara’s past investigations led to prison sentences for both former legislative leaders.

The governor does not seem to believe, though, that no wrong doing occurred. He is conducting his own internal investigation led by his appointee, former prosecutor Bart Schwartz. Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, has already said in statements that he believes some improper lobbying or fraudulent self-dealing by some individuals might have occurred.

Cuomo has acknowledged that his former top aide, Joe Percoco, is a target of the probe, as is Todd Howe, a lobbyist and close Cuomo family associate. Cuomo portrayed his own investigation as working in in tandem with the U.S. attorney.

“If there’s something wrong, I want to know it,” said Cuomo. “We will fully prosecute according to the law.”

But Bharara previously shot down the idea of co-investigation. In a statement after former Senate Leader Dean Skelos was sentenced to five years in federal prison on May 12, Bharara said that the “most effective corruption investigations are those that are truly independent and not in danger of either interference or premature shutdown sentencing”. That last part is interpreted as a jab at Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission on corruption, which he shuttered as part of a budget deal in 2014.

Cuomo says the Board that will vote on the Buffalo Billion projects postponed the meeting due to a scheduling conflict. And he says in the future, his investigator, Bat Schwartz, will personally review all the decisions.

Ron Deutsch, with the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank partly funded by unions, says putting off a decision on the half a billion dollars in projects is the right thing to do, given all the questions swirling around the Buffalo Billion right now.

“The leaders in particular said ‘wait a minute, let’s said hit the pause button,” said Deutsch who said it makes sense to “look a little bit more closely” before handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to the Solar City factory project. 

The meeting has been rescheduled for Wednesday, May 25.

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.