ALBANY — As his office investigates one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's key programs, Preet Bharara is making war on campaign fund-raising as we know it.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District issued a flurry of subpoenas earlier this summer, seeking information about how construction contracts were awarded on several big state projects in Buffalo, according to people familiar with the investigation and other published reports.
The New York Times reported Sunday that investigators subpoenaed Empire State Development, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and their subsidiaries. It's impossible to know exactly what Bharara is looking for — the prosecutor and his aides refuse to talk about their ongoing work — but his efforts are ensnaring campaign donors whose apparent sin is giving to politicians as they benefitted from state business.
“Their goal is to use the people that are paying to testify against the politicians. They're not after the company that is paying for the service,” said James Cohen, a longtime defense attorney and professor at Fordham Law School. “It's precisely what Bharara said he was going to do: he thinks that Albany and its various tentacles — which go both ways — are really dirty, and have been dirty for a real long time. New York has not shown any ability, in his mind, to attempt to clean it up.”
If Bharara is after the politicians on the other end of the donations and not the donors themselves, then we have a pretty good idea which politician he's targeting here - these are all Cuomo's donors he's looking into:
One of the recently subpoenaed firms is LPCiminelli, sources said, a stalwart contractor in Buffalo that is building a solar panel factory for SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Company president Louis Ciminelli and other entities he controls have given Cuomo $90,800 since 2011, making him one of the governor's 100 largest donors. The solar contract was originally written so only Ciminelli met the criteria; the request for proposals was subsequently amended, but Ciminelli still won.
The correlation between the donations and the award quickly aroused the interest of journalists; Ciminelli and SUNY Poly insist the contract awards were on the merits. Daniel Oliverio, who is representing Ciminelli, declined to confirm or deny the subpoena but said “unequivocally” that the firm and its owners were not the targets of any investigation.
There's Ciminelli in Buffalo. In Albany, Joe Nicolla and Columbia Development gave Cuomo thousands as it won contracts to build new buildings for SUNY Poly and a convention center down the block from the Capitol. Other companies in the Capital Region held a fund-raiser for Cuomo before they won money in an economic development contest. Cuomo raked in $250,000 from developers in Kiryas Joel after he vetoed a bill that would have restricted the Hasidic enclave's growth.
As for what Bharara may be looking to pin on Cuomo:
Paul DerOhannesian, a defense lawyer based in Albany, said the focus of honest services fraud is on the fraudulent and deceptive conduct of the public official who abuses a position of trust, and the government is not required to link any particular payment to a specific act on the part of the public official. The quid pro quo element is therefore satisfied if the public official understood that as a result of the payment, he of she was expected to exercise particular kinds of influence on behalf of the person directing the payments as opportunities arose, or when called upon to do so.
“It's murky,” he said.
Polls show that New York voters agree with Bharara, and even if it can't be declared strictly illegal, business as usual in Albany needs to change. If the attorney general has his way, that's going to apply to the entire elected class that thrives on and perpetuates the current system, from Cuomo on down.
I'm sure there's something Bharara knows that we don't know about all of this that has spurred his interest (as well as the subpoenas to Cuomo's donors as well as Empire State Development Corporation and Suny Polytechnic) and the rapid fire leaks are indication that what he knows is bad for somebody.
Bharara's leaks are strategic, often setting up the frame that somebody's got some legal trouble (e.g., Silver, Skelos.)
I would think the same thing is being done here and since the donors in question are all Cuomo's and the recipients of the subpoenas on the state end are allies of Cuomo (like Alain Kaloyeros at Suny) or entities essentially controlled by Cuomo (Empire State Development), the target of Bharara's investigation is pretty clear.