May 2, 2016

Grains of Salt (v8): Fitzing Around

Onondaga County's DA-for-Life, William Fitzpatrick, is investigating Syracuse's City Hall and Stephanie Miner, our term-limited mayor, for allegedly attempting to influence people's opinions against a tax deal for a developer who has been given exclusive rights to make the Syracuse Inner Harbor pretty.

Miner prefers that developer candy baskets include specific hiring requirements for city residents, among other things, and defends (too fiercely, many think) city territory on these deals. The mayor challenged this one because COR Development, the company in question, went straight to  the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency  instead of to the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency, because they anticipated a friendlier reception - and they got one.

Miner sued, saying that COR promised not to seek a PILOT on the Inner Harbor project; the judge didn't buy it, and tossed her lawsuit. Fitzpatrick is investigating to see if there was undue influence by City Hall on legislators or other witnesses, or on public opinion generally. (Note that there was apparently some attempt to influence, as noted by the discovery of a letter to the editor that was 'signed' by five religious leaders, some of whom were surprised to see their names in the paper. Comically, or sadly, all of the local judges recused themselves from the case.)

COR Development once had close ties with Miner, and has a connection with the mayor's husband and his family; the company still has close ties with OnJoanie Mahoney, only the third county executive in Onondaga's history, and perhaps the last, depending on what happens with the Consensus Commission's recommendations to merge government functions between the city and the county.

It was this same developer who was in on the plans to build a half-a-billion-dollar stadium for Syracuse University - in the city - and we know that the plan was not discussed with the mayor in advance of it being announced, and eventually was not given the green light. The property where the stadium was to have been built remains basically undeveloped by COR at this time; all of the grand plans for the Loguen's Crossing development pre-stadium debacle have not yet been realized, nor has any real intent to act on them, as far as anyone knows.

The developer is also huge supporter of our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo, giving a couple hundred thou to his 2014 campaign, and benefiting by having millions of dollars in contracts associated with the Sonofa Guv's gimmicky economic development programs around the state come their way. That includes right here in our own back yard where they have - you guessed it - exclusive rights to develop things like the 'nano-center' where we have a movie production studio generating some jobs, and a new LED lighting manufacturer which will bring in a few hundred more.

Those deals came about through COR's relationship with the Gov, er I mean through their interactions with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute. SUNY Poly is heavily involved in the "Buffalo Billion" project, a shining star in Cuomo's portfolio of economic successes.  Parts of the Buffalo Billion, including SUNY Poly, and people associated with it, including a very close former aide to Cuomo, are currently being looked at as part of the ongoing investigation of US Attorney Preet Bharara into politics and ethics in New York.

Bharara, who has already gotten convictions of both former NY Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former State Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, has made it clear he's not stopping his investigations even if the Governor's ill-fated and "totally independent" Moreland Commission to investigate corruption in NY's government was nipped in the bud when it apparently got too close to Cuomo, his donors, media partners, and so on.

I say 'apparently' that's why it was nipped in the bud, because pretty much everyone thinks that -- reporters, Bharara, and most New Yorkers, except maybe the members of the State Legislature; they're glad the Commission is out of their hair, and I don't think they care why.

One person who doesn't think that, though, is Fitzpatrick, who was one of the three co-chairs of the Commission (OnJoanie was also a member) and who suggested in emails that were uncovered that "the Second Floor" (the Sonofa Guv's home base in Albany) needed to understand what "independent" meant. Many people took that as suggesting at least some level of meddling, but apparently that was not the case.

Because the Commission asserted in court papers that it was fully independent, only a couple of months before it was unceremoniously shut down by the Governor, who pretended that his objectives on ethics reform were met through the budget negotiation process. Bharara noted that the shutdown didn't really pass the smell test. He ordered the Commission to preserve all papers and then, a few months later, let people know he would not take kindly to attempts by the Second Floor to influence any of the now former Commission members into painting a rosy picture of things when that was likely not the case.

And who was one of the Commission members who made glowing statements about the independence of the Commission, noting that no one can push him around and make him drop something he was interested in looking at, oh no siree?  None other than our very own DA,  Bill Fitzpatrick.

Heads spinning as we try and sort out this plate of spaghetti, we're Fitzing around here in Syracuse, fingers pointing, accusations and denials flowing like wine, he saids and she saids and who remembers and who signed and who didn't and who told on who and, frankly, for what?

Absent a smoking gun in Syracuse's City Hall, I would be confused as to how the Mayor's attempts to influence public opinion about a tax deal are really any different than Fitzpatrick's attempt to influence public opinion about an independent ethics commission?

They're both elected officials, speaking to constituents (many of whom don't like them) about things that any number of their constituents don't like or don't believe, and about which many people couldn't care less.

Do we want honest politicians? Of course we do. Do we want to uncover corruption? Sure we do. Would it be better if the person doing the investigating was not someone who has long-standing issues with the folks he's investigating? Of course it would.  Is that likely to happen here?