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Cuomo manages fallout from corruption scandal

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo is distancing himself from the corruption scandal within his administration and placing the blame on others. But some say Cuomo might be better off making some changes instead.

Cuomo has made a number of public appearances across the state, continuing to promote economic development efforts, just as he did before U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged several of Cuomo’s former close associates and two major real estate developers with bribery and fraud in connection with the Buffalo Billion and other projects.

Cuomo spoke in Buffalo one day after the nine criminal complaints were announced, saying the programs aren’t going to stop. 

“The Buffalo Billion is not about projects in the ground and nine individuals who are alleged to have done bad acts,” Cuomo said.

He has said he’s personally saddened by the alleged corruption by longtime Cuomo family friend Joe Percoco, but he doesn’t believe Percoco’s alleged acts have any larger bearing on his administration.

The governor also is laying blame on the State University system and its board of directors. Technically, they have oversight over SUNY Polytechnic Institute, where Alain Kaloyeros — who’s also charged with corruption — awarded all of the major contracts for the Buffalo Billion and other projects.

In Skaneateles, where the governor was making another economic development announcement, a reporter asked him how he could not have known what was going on “right under his nose.”

“I read the complaint from the U.S. Attorney, and I had no idea that any of that was going on,” Cuomo said.

The governor said he doesn’t mean to sound “defensive,” but he said it all occurred through SUNY’s procurement system.

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

Cuomo said he’s already transferred all authority for contracts to his own Empire State Development authority, and will announce reforms in his State of the State message in January. 

And he said all campaign donations from the two developers will be held in escrow until the criminal cases are concluded, in case a judge orders any forfeiture of funds from the companies.

Critics of the governor’s economic development programs say there’s more that he can do to get out from under the scandal.

Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky chaired a key oversight committee that looked at state economic development projects and reformed questionable practices in previous administrations. He said there’s little evidence that Cuomo’s signature programs have led to a better economy overall and the governor should instead find a new direction.

“What I’d say is, change course,” Brodsky said.

Brodsky said there are alternative ways to boost the economy that work better, such as investing in infrastructure and education.

“If he insists on maintaining these kinds of policies, more and more the evidence will show they’re not working,” Brodsky said. “And he will be forced, politically, to defend the indefensible.”

E.J. McMahon with the Empire Center, a fiscal watchdog group, say there might be some positive political fallout if the attention on the criminal charges cause New Yorkers to look more closely at some of the big projects now financed with public dollars, like the $750 million subsidy to the Solar City factory in Buffalo, run by Tesla chair Elon Musk.

“I would hope the public would ask, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why are you spending all this money,’ ” McMahon said. “ ‘To build a factory for a billionaire?’ ”

McMahon said if Solar City, which is in shaky financial condition, goes bust, taxpayers will own the factory.

Brodsky said Cuomo has pivoted before on an issue.

He said Cuomo was initially skeptical of raising the minimum wage to $15, but later led a bus tour and successfully campaigned to convince even Republicans in the Legislature to pass it.

But the governor does not appear to be shifting direction any time soon. He announced this week what he called a major step forward for the rebuilding of Penn Station in New York City, saying his projects restore a spirit of confidence and energy.

“Don’t tell me we can’t do it,” the governor said, his voice rising. “We’ve done this and much, much more. And that is the blood in our veins and the DNA in our cells.”

Cuomo said it’s his mission to “make things happen.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.