U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has a federal grand jury looking for corruption in the awarding of contracts and related dealings associated with the so-called Buffalo Billion, and on its face, there's a lot to look at.
• A billion taxpayer dollars being handed out to spur economic development in the typical manner the Cuomo administration does business, with as little public disclosure of the nitty-gritty as they can get away with. There was a single applicant for the centerpiece development deal worth $750 million, a solar panel manufacturing plant for SolarCity. The single applicant was LPCiminelli, owned by Louis Ciminelli. He gave the governor nearly $100,000 in campaign donations over two terms. There was no competitive bidding on key subcontracts for building the SolarCity complex, instead, these subcontractors were hand-picked by LPCiminelli — with state approval.
• Three months after another developer, McGuire Development, received a contract for a different major Buffalo Billion project, the Cuomo campaign got a $25,000 contribution from the developer.
• All contract approvals, funds dispersal, and fiscal oversight of the Buffalo Billion family of projects are the exclusive domain of the Empire State Development Corporation, tightly controlled by the governor's office, with approval of the governor's Division of the Budget. In effect, the governor and a coterie of his closest advisors run it all.
• The governor, a particularly astute fundraiser, amassed a reported $47 million in campaign contributions during the last election cycle, much of it from those who in some fashion have done or will do business with the state.
Eye-opening stuff, yet not necessarily even improper by past standards. In fact, much of it is business as usual.
As for the governor's political fundraising, the governor himself has repeatedly said there is no connection between contributions and expectations of any reward, between pay and play. He said donors in western New York can see his commitment to the region and would contribute out of general support and encouragement.
It's a system that "hasn't been a problem for the past 100 years, so I don't know why it would be today."
Then again, how naive is it to suggest contributors don't often want a tangible return on investment, or a way of saying thanks? So just maybe what the governor shrugs off as no problem is in fact at the heart of the so-called corrupt Albany political culture. If so, Bharara may well be about to try to redefine what is a problem.
That's good news for the public. Not so much for the governor.
One thing to amend in LeBrun's account - Ciminelli actually gave Cuomo $123,000, not $100,000.
Late last week, we learned that Shelly Silver's defense team plans to call nearly every power broker and politician in Albany as witnesses in his corruption trial.
Cuomo himself made the witness list.
Silver's defense in his corruption trial is essentially "Hey, this is the way Albany operates. People give to get, they pay to play. It may be unseemly, it may be ethically-challenged, but it is not illegal."
This is essentially Cuomo's argument too - it "hasn't been a problem for the past 100 years, so I don't know why it would be today."
Bharara has meant business so far in his investigations of two of the infamous "three men in a room" who rule the state.
Just last week we learned that Bharara got 150 subpoenas in his investigation of Dean Skelos, interviewing over 80 witnesses.
The break in the Skelos corruption case came from something Bharara learned from the Shelly Silver investigation, though the US attorney's office had already been investigating Skelos for a month before that new lead came.
Given the seriousness with which Bharara's office pursued both Silver and Skelos, there's little reason to think they aren't given the same breadth, scope and seriousness to the investigation into Cuomo's Buffalo Billion Project.
We know subpoenas went out to SUNY Polytech and the Empire State Development Corporation.
We know the feds are looking very closely at Cuomo's man at SUNY Polytech, the flamboyant Alain Kaloyeros, who has dubbed himself as "Dr. Nano" and makes over $800,000 a year as a state employee.
We know that the feds are looking closely at the contractors in the Buffalo Billion case as well and can be pretty sure they are the same contractors who donated to Cuomo's campaign concurrent to when they were receiving state contracts that looked rigged just for them.
Now maybe Bharara doesn't find any "smoking gun" in all of this and it gets swept away as "business as usual," the kind of stuff that has been going on for a 100 years, as Cuomo himself said.
But as LeBrun wrote in his Times-Union piece today, Bharara appears to be trying to redefine what is "business as usual" in Albany and what is corruption.
He undoubtedly has his own reasons for doing so, since he hasn't taken the same route with Wall Street and the financiers and con men there - cynics among us (including myself) think he's got his own political ambitions and taking out every member of the infamous "three men in a room" club in Albany would certainly serve him politically if he wants to, say, run for governor or something.
That said, his motivations don't detract from the practical effects of his actions.
He's already gotten two of the three men in the room criminally charged and awaiting trial - whether he can successfully get convictions of both is another matter.
And whether he can nail the third man in a room and take him down too, that's even harder to gauge at this point.
But I do think this much is true - he appears to aiming to do just that and given how hard he worked to take out both Silver and Skelos, you can bet he's working very hard at that too.