Even as the U.S. Justice Department is investigating members of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration for alleged conflicts of interest, transparency groups are warning that proposed legislation in the Statehouse would limit access to public documents through Freedom of Information Law requests.
The four New York-based transparency groups expressed their opposition to reworking the FOIL laws in a memorandum Friday. They say the bill would make it harder for people and organizations who sue government agencies for failing to fulfill the FOIL requests — that is, requests for documents that are, by definition, public property — to be awarded attorney’s fees even if they win their lawsuits. The bill, they say, would insulate agencies from liability for those fees (which can act as a deterrent), rewarding agencies for deliberately missing their own deadlines.
The FOIL bill comes amid increased scrutiny on New York state transparency laws and a federal investigation of a billion-dollar state program that includes potential conflict of interest violations from state employees.
Justice Department investigators announced last month that they would continue to examine how a $1 billion program meant to revitalize the Buffalo region and others had been handled. The investigators are looking into how money and contracts were awarded under the “Buffalo Billion” program, which invested that sum into revitalizing Western New York. The program — championed by Cuomo for creating jobs, new buildings and optimism for the city — seems to have benefited a handful of well-connected New York players, including developers and donors to Cuomo.
News of the investigation surfaced last year when prosecutors subpoenaed three important companies in the program. That included SolarCity, an energy company backed by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk that intends to build a solar-panel factory on the Buffalo River and is a major corporate partner with the state of New York. The firm ultimately chosen to develop the SolarCity plant, LPCiminelli, has given at least $96,500 to Cuomo’s campaigns for governor. The original solicitation appeared to be written in a way that would exclude most other companies and, while that language was later rewritten to be more open, LPCiminelli ultimately won the bid.
Cuomo’s administration has hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an internal review of the Buffalo Billion program, examining potential “improper lobbying” and “self-dealing” with “former state employees.” Those employees include Cuomo confidant Joseph Percoco, who reportedly got payments from companies and entities with business before the state, including Buffalo Billion entities.
Calls to Percoco's lawyer's office by the International Business Times for comment were not immediately returned, but a June 13 New York Times article noted that Percoco did not comment then but his lawyer referred to his client as "a dedicated and effective public servant." Percoco has not been charged with a crime.
Legislators in Albany moved in the early morning hours Saturday to pass a reform package that reportedly includes a substantial number of changes to the state campaign finance system, lobbying law and the state constitution itself. The bill mostly deals with regulating super PACs and requiring outside groups to disclose their donors; it likely would not affect the behavior of elected officials. At least one state senator voiced concern that legislators, who ultimately approved the reforms in the Assembly at 4:50 a.m., don’t really know what’s in the package.