LOVETT: Cuomo critics worry governor is creating giant slush fund

ALBANY — In his new budget plan, Gov. Cuomo quietly seeks to create a $200.5 million pot for economic projects, a move critics fear could turn into a pork barrel slush fund that he controls.

Cuomo aides say the money is geared toward already announced nano-technology programs to make sure that required payments are made after the state fell behind on some last year.

But the budget language does not specify that.

Called the “Strategic Projects Program,” the money, according to the budget document, would be earmarked for “services and expenses, loans, and grants, related to strategic economic development projects that create or retain jobs and support innovation.”

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“That language does not, in fact, restrict their ability to use this money for other purposes,” said E.J. McMahon, of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

“The last thing we need is another discretionary pot of capital pork,” he added.

Howard Zemsky, Cuomo’s hand-picked head of the Empire State Development agency, insisted that despite the vague budget language, there will be legislative oversight and that any money spent from the fund would have to be approved by an existing board appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

He said the money will go toward nanotechnology projects that his agency took over from SUNY Polytechnic Institute and related entities after a federal probe into several of Cuomo's upstate economic development initiatives led to bid rigging and pay-to-play charges against nine Cuomo associates, including former top aide and close friend Joseph Percoco.

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Zemsky said after a year where there were project payment delays, “one thing we’ve been very committed to do is square up, honor our commitments. Our intention is to catch up on our obligations. Do it above board and with transparency ... and make sure we strengthen the foundations with these important (private) partners so we can move forward.”

Some in the Legislature have complained that Cuomo continues to control large pots of money in the budget even after eliminating new non-capital money that lawmakers directed to projects in their districts.

They are also questioning why in his new budget Cuomo is seeking to require that legislators submit written declarations that they have no financial interest or have not received any financial benefit from certain legislative grants they are directing, but there is no such requirement placed on pots the governor controls, such as the $1.5 billion State and Municipal Facilities Program that is divvied up between the executive and each house of the Legislature.

McMahon, whose Empire Center first highlighted the issue, agrees.

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“These new restrictions are good, but the fact he's not applying it to himself is inexplicable," he told the News.

Cuomo budget spokesman Morris Peters responded that the existing conflict of interest disclosures for the State and Municipal Facilities program exceed the protocols for discretionary legislative grants.

"The language we're proposing in the budget extends transparency and accountability requirements to those additional programs," he said.

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A former top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has not joined the Cuomo administration as expected, but instead was given a short-term advising contract.

The News reported in late November that after briefly helping potential GOP mayoral candidate Paul Massey, Maria Comella began advising Cuomo on his 2017 agenda.

But it wasn't until Jan. 10 that a contract for up to $25,000 with Comella's firm MAC Strategies LLC, was sent to the state Controller's office that covers from Nov. 14 through Jan. 31. No payments have yet been made.

"Maria is a top notch talent who played a key roll in developing our 2017 agenda that will help the middle class, make college affordable and move New York forward," said Cuomo Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa. “We’re proud to have her as a part of Team Cuomo.”

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It's unclear whether Comella will remain with Cuomo after the contract expires.

Meanwhile, despite receiving early advice from Comella, records show Massey's campaign did not pay her.

Massey spokeswoman Mollie Fullington said Comella "volunteered her time."

But Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said it's possible by law Massey should have listed Comella's efforts as a non-monetary donation.

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The state prison guard union is hardly shedding tears that Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell moved this year from chairman of his chamber's corrections committee to head of the tourism and arts committee.

The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association had a contentious relationship with O'Donnell during his four years as corrections committee chairman, union and legislative sources say.

The Manhattan Democrat, whose sister is comedian Rosie O'Donnell, said he's wanted to chair the tourism and arts committee for years and requested it after previous head Margaret Markey (D-Queens) lost her primary last year.

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Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens) is the new corrections committee chairman.

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