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Questions Remain About Cuomo Investigator

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Governor Cuomo

It’s been over a month since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hired a special investigator in response to a federal probe of his Buffalo Billion project and other economic development programs. But so far, no contract with former prosecutor Bart Schwartz has been released, and questions remain about what exactly he is investigating.

On April 29, the same day that Cuomo revealed that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had subpoenaed records related to his economic development programs, Cuomo announced that he’d hired Schwartz, a former prosecutor who served under Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani was U.S. Attorney.

“We started our own investigation with a private investigator,” Cuomo later said, “because we want to make sure that there was nothing done improper.”

Cuomo said if improprieties are found, he wants to take “corrective action.”

At the initial announcement in late April, Schwartz said in a statement that there was “reason to believe” that lobbyists and former state employees had committed fraud. He said he would review “all grants and approvals” of contracts and operations of the Buffalo Billion and other high-tech development programs across the state.

It’s now been over a month since Schwartz’s hiring, but the Cuomo administration has not said how much Schwartz will be paid or released terms of his contract, which is financed through public funds.  A spokesman for the governor said only that the contract will be finalized and released “soon.”

Cuomo has characterized Schwartz’s role in the ongoing probe in different ways at different times. At first, he referred to Schwartz as almost a co-investigator with Bharara.

“If there’s something wrong, I want to know it,” Cuomo said. “We will fully prosecute according to the law.”

Those statements earned Cuomo a rebuke from Bharara. In a statement on May 12, after former Senate leader Dean Skelos was sentenced to prison, Bharara said, “Most effective corruption investigations are those that are truly independent.” 

Lately, the governor and his aides have portrayed Schwartz’s role as more limited, saying that he will essentially just review contracts and documents that are already public, including any deals that result from a recent state allocation of $485 million to the Buffalo Billion’s SolarCity factory project.

There also was some confusion about whether Schwartz’s final report on the potential fraud in the Cuomo administration will ever be publicly released. Cuomo initially said he wasn’t sure.

“He is being hired as an independent to do an independent review,” said Cuomo. “I don’t know what his standard protocol is. I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but I don’t know how he operates.”

And the governor’s top counsel said at that same news conference on May 24 that it’s up to Schwartz to decide whether the final report is ever released.

A spokesman for the governor later clarified the report will be made public unless it interferes with the U.S. Attorney’s work.

John Kaehny, executive director of the reform group Reinvent Albany, said there are a number of unanswered questions about Schwartz.

“We don’t know what Bart Schwartz’s job is,” Kaehny said.

He added that no one outside of Cuomo’s inner circle knows Schwartz’s actual responsibilities,  and so we “don’t really know why he’s there.”

“Schwartz is not independent. His client is the governor,” Kaehny said. “People are very bad at investigating themselves. So the usefulness of Schwartz being involved seems very, very limited.”

Schwartz has hired his own public relations firm to help with media inquiries. But his representative said he can’t provide details of Schwartz’s contracts or the scope of his investigation, and can’t offer any more information beyond Schwartz’s brief initial statement in April.

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