The Buffalo billion; some horse-trading; an unnamed source

The billion

The full moon departed for the month several days ago, but you would never know it from all the crazy political news coming out yesterday.

The tsunami started in New York City early in the day and then rolled through Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo. Our local share of the damage came in the form of the attack on the biggest economic development effort in the region’s history, the project now affectionately known far and wide as the “Buffalo Billion.”

Today’s Buffalo News skips their usual re-prints about political news from yesterday’s New York Times and the Washington Post to devote seven full pages of coverage to the Billion story. Actually it’s 7+ when you count the editorial.

The News attempts to make the best of all the wonderful economic development activities of the Cuomo administration and suggests (prays?) that they will succeed. This follows the News’ glowing reports on the mostly failing efforts of the START-UP NY projects that are supposed to link state economic development to college campuses. I write that while admitting that the only bright spot in the program is right here at the University at Buffalo.

I’m sure the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will offer classic coverage digging into the offshoots of the story, of which there will likely be many. The second floor at the State Capitol cannot be resting easy when they hear United States Attorney Preet Bharara say that, “What I can say at this moment is that there is no allegation of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor anywhere in this complaint. That is all I’m going to say.” Ouch.

One more comment about this story. Jim Heaney and his Investigative Post crew deserve a Pulitzer Prize for the incredible work that they have done on the Buffalo Billion project. They started early, dug deep and have been relentless in their pursuit of the truth. Great job!

Some horse-trading

Then there was the story about members of the Republican caucus in the County Legislature taking major offense at the reaction of County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who is being pressured to immediately repair the Springville Boston Road in the Town of Concord. Poloncarz left a voicemail on Legislature Chairman John Mills’ phone suggesting that while Mills wanted that road in his district taken care of, the County Executive wanted to also discuss some issues concerning the Erie County Medical Center and a union contract. Mills and his colleagues went public with Poloncarz’s message, suggesting that Mark was offering a “bribe.” Really John, a “bribe?”

Remote roads such as the Springville Boston Road are the responsibility of the county rather than the town they are located in because in decades gone by the political horse-trading of the former Board of Supervisors added such stretches of road to what is a 1,200 lane mile system of county roads in Erie County. It is the largest county road system, by far, in New York State.

No one seems to dispute that the Springville Boston Road needs repair, but government is supposed to be about negotiations and compromise, and generally that works well on the local level. John Mills is a good and honorable man, and the charge of a bribe is out of character. Come on fellows, get together and figure it out.

The unnamed source

The third political development from yesterday was a Buffalo News exclusive. That did not mean, however, that it was a story with much substance. The story took its lead from an unnamed source and most likely proceeded to make a mountain out of a molehill.

The News cited an unnamed source who passed on that the Federal Bureau of Investigations, working with prosecutors in New York City, is running down information relating to an investigation into the political activities of New York Mayor Bill deBlasio’s efforts to help elect Democrats to the State Senate. DeBlasio was looking for a Senate that might be more favorably inclined to the City than Republicans.

Folks in Upstate New York, of course, have different views about what state government’s priorities should be compared with the views of New York City residents. But from deBlasio’s standpoint he has the right to fight for his City. For some historic perspective on this, you might recall stories about the tons of personal cash that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured into State Senate Republican coffers for the same purpose.

None of this is to defend what deBlasio and his supporters did or did not do in their campaign efforts. If the Election Law was violated, go after it.

The story about the use of the deBlasio-raised campaign cash has mostly been the handiwork of the New York Daily News.

Here, in a nutshell, is the deBlasio campaign fund story, which you can read in more detail in the Daily News story from April 2015.    deBlasio and people associated with him in 2014 raised several hundred thousands of dollars to assist certain Democratic State Senate candidates in the Hudson Valley region. There was talk about the deBlasio effort extending into Monroe and Erie Counties (Mark Panepinto’s campaign in Erie), but that did not occur. Separately Panepinto’s campaign benefitted largely from the financial support of the state teachers’ union.

The deBlasio project involved getting large donations to the accounts of the Putnam and Ulster County Democratic Committees for them to assist the local Senate candidates. Direct contributions to individual candidates are fairly limited by law, but contribution limits to county committees are much higher. The county committees can then channel money to the individual candidates in one form or another.

Republicans in Albany figured out the Hudson Valley scheme and objected to the State Board of Elections about the activities in Putnam and Ulster. They probably did not have a hard time doing this, since they have been around the campaign finance block a few times themselves.

The State Board of Elections investigated and decided that the Election Law may have been violated with these activities. They passed their information on to New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and to the U.S. Attorney, who have proceeded to conduct their own investigations.

Along the way in these developments there was a story, as noted, about potentially similar campaign finance activity in Monroe and Erie Counties. The story line in Erie was that the teachers’ union sent $100,000 to the Erie County Democratic Committee for Mark Panepinto’s benefit. It did not happen. The union has said more than once that a check was not sent. Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner has said more than once that no check from the union was received or deposited. And yet the News repeats the story over and over again.

The story, reprinted yet again in the News yesterday, went on to say the FBI earlier this week interviewed two individual from the Erie County Democratic Committee about the New York City-based political investigation. It quoted an unnamed source about the story line.

Allow me, at this point, to offer some speculation based on knowledge of how politics and government work.

The New York City investigation, as earlier noted, is being led by New York County DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. If a DA’s work includes questions or issues in another county in the state, it seems to me that protocol and professional courtesy would mean the DA originating the work would notify the DA in the county in question that they will be doing some work in the other county. Which, if my speculation is correct, means that DA Vance in some form or another notified acting Erie County DA Michael Flaherty that investigators working for Vance would be talking to people in Erie County.

Carrying on with my speculation, consider what might go through someone’s head in a situation like this. Just wondering here, but it seems that someone who had just lost a hard fought campaign, someone whose campaign effort was led by a person (Jim Eagan) eager to not only elect a DA but also try to disrupt or takeover the Democratic County Committee, might think that he was handed a gift in the form of a revenge opportunity for their failed election efforts.

So, my speculation goes, acting DA Flaherty spoke both on and off the record to News reporter Bob McCarthy. On the record, he discusses his office’s work in investigating election campaign legal violations. Off the record, I am speculating, he passes on something about the interview of the two Democrats, not naming them and careful to note that they are only witnesses and not targets.

This is the acting DA, of course, whose campaign through Eagan admitted to the childish prank of buying a phony internet domain name that people might assume belonged to Flaherty’s opponent, John Flynn. This is the campaign, when you easily eliminate the possibility of good-guy Mark Sacha’s involvement, may have encouraged someone to put out the nasty anti-Flynn robocalls. This is the acting DA who cannot bring himself to explain his role in reversing a grand jury finding about a serious crime when former DA Frank Sedita apparently decided he did not want to pursue a difficult case.

The FBI is doing their job in investigating the New York City election law issues. Trying to get some local political mileage out of this, when there really is not much of a story, reflects very poorly on the person involved.

One more thing. The unnamed source in yesterday’s News story linked the local interviews with a question about judicial candidates in 2014 being asked to donate to a campaign effort to elect certain delegates to the Independence Party judicial convention that year. As the story notes, both Democrats and Republicans were doing the same thing, raising money from judicial candidates for the convention delegates’ election. The money was all duly reported. BTW, the Republicans were successful.

The unnamed source suggests that the Independence Party election issue is part of the FBI’s interviews in Buffalo this week. But that story line seems questionable when McCarthy notes that no Republicans were interviewed this week; why would they not be interviewed if there was a concern about the propriety of the judicial convention delegates’ finances?

I am speculating about some of this, but the News story seems to be a whole lot of nothing. As one of my favorite national columnists, Gail Collins, might write – chill, people!