The Buffalo Billion program championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a bold and costly experiment in economic development that is beset by secrecy and politics, and banking on a company with a history of losing money.
The program — hailed in Buffalo but resented across much of the rest of New York — has been promoted as both a catalyst for rejuvenating the western New York economy and a model for other upstate regions.
But the management of the Buffalo Billion by the Cuomo administration has raised eyebrows — and concerns — in some quarters.
•One of Cuomo's largest campaign contributors from the Buffalo area has been awarded contracts to develop two of the three facilities that will house companies recruited to set up shop in Buffalo. The state's original solicitation for a developer to build a massive solar panel manufacturing plant included a requirement that might have limited the pool of respondents to just one firm, LPCiminelli, whose owner has contributed $96,500 to Cuomo's campaign during his two races for governor. The state later relaxed the requirement, but awarded the contract to Louis Ciminelli's firm anyway.
•The state development corporation managing the Buffalo Billion has taken up to a year to release public records that, among other things, detail how Ciminelli and other developers were selected. Documents detailing how much developers are getting paid have been redacted to remove payment figures. One of Cuomo's lieutenants went so far as to liken a reporter's efforts to obtain records under the state Freedom of Information Law to terrorism.
•The state is making its biggest investment — $750 million — to build a solar panel manufacturing plant for SolarCity despite that company's mounting financial losses and legal problems. SolarCity lost a record $375 million last year and is the subject of a federal investigation considering its receipt of stimulus funds.
I know there are many readers out there skeptical that Preet Bharara is going to go after Andrew Cuomo or that the Obama administration (which would have to sign off on such an effort) would allow it.
I share that skepticism, especially after VP Joe Biden's recent bromance with Cuomo.
That said, the Buffalo Billion project doesn't pass the smell test - they rigged the bidding process for a Cuomo donor, then when called on that rigging, tweaked the process and handed the project over to the donor anyway.
They ignored FOIL request for documents related to the bidding process, then compared a reporter's attempts to get those records as "terrorism".
Even then, they released redactred records to hide stuff.
One of the companies involved in the project is under a federal investigation already for possible misue of stimulus funds and that same company lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year.
Something stinks here, that's for sure.
Whether the stink reaches as high as Cuomo, well, that remains to be seen.
But between the federal investigation into the Buffalo Billion project and the investigation into Steven Pigeon, the reputed go-to guy for Cuomo in Western New York (see here and here), I bet there's some concern within the administration about where all of this goes.