Bharara & Schneiderman: The New Untouchables

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Nine people were arrested across upstate and western New York, indicted for allegations of bribery and bid-rigging in connection with Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative. Cuomo’s own deputy, Joe Percoco, stands accused of bribery, soliciting a $90,000 no-show job for his wife in exchange for exerting his influence in the capital on behalf of a Syracuse power company and developer. Lobbyist and Cuomo family confidante Todd Howe pled guilty and is cooperating with authorities. Howe’s firm handled lobbying for the Syracuse power company and developer, and for local development firm, LPCiminelli. SUNY Polytechnic’s Alain Kaloyeros, local developer Lou Ciminelli, and executives Michael Laippe and Kevin Schuler all stand accused of rigging bids for construction that unfairly and illegally favored LPCiminelli. 

All of this speaks to the culture of quid pro quo in Albany – private firms spending big money to lubricate the gears of government to win big contracts and earn big profits on the public’s dime. It was pretty open and rather brazen, as it happens when the alleged gangsters in question are unencumbered by omerta

It was as comically bad as this: with respect to the Percoco bribery charges, the parties involved referred to the bribes as “ziti”, harkening back to the mafia series The Sopranos, whose characters used the euphemism “boxes of ziti“. 

Perhaps, on the bright side, this episode might lead Unshackle Upstate and other business-entity advocacy groups to dummy up. They’re doing just fine in New York’s “anti-business” climate, because they know better than anyone how to navigate and exploit political money and speech for private gain. 

More seriously, however, good job, defendants. Nice work destroying and degrading something that had/s the potential to do so much good for so many people in this region. Thanks so much for taking an initiative that perhaps balances as much risk as it does hope for economic activity and jobs and turning it into an abbreviation for bribery, graft, and typical upstate corruption. Sure, they’re “innocent until proven guilty” in court, but the public relations damage is already complete. The Buffalo Billion is no longer a risky public investment in private enterprise, but a corrupt public scandal. The Watergate Hotel sympathizes. 

Here’s what this means. Buffalo and New York are run by a mafia. Not mafia in an ethnic sense, nor in any sense strictly parallel to what you find in a Scorcese movie. It’s not based on neighborhood or nationality, or even political partisanship. It’s a mafia based solely on money and power, and it is allowed to thrive within a system that has been especially designed to incubate it; that no one has the political will – or ability – to smash.

It is a system that is self-perpetuating, too. Like Matt Damon in The Martian, we plant potato seeds of corruption, graft, and bribery to yield bountiful and plentiful kickbacks, no-show jobs, and phantom profits. The mafia bosses are the three men in the room. Their staffs are the underbosses. The appointees are their caporegimes. Sometimes they co-opt other, smaller families, like the IDC, for their mutual gain. The dictatorship of the bureaucracy – those are the soldiers; the countless people who close their eyes, do their jobs, and shut their mouths until pensions vest. 

New York government is populated with gangsters, and the whole operation is a racket. How else do you explain, for instance, paying $50,000 for an actual person to man a toll booth and act as a human ticket dispenser in the year 2016? 

It’s tough to bring down a mafia family. Preet Bharara and his US Attorney’s Office, as well as Eric Schneiderman and his AG’s office, are the New Untouchables.

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