The nation is in a sensitive time, with demands for transparency and accountability from elected officials at what may be an all-time high. At all levels of Government, candidates and politicians at all levels are being removed as morally corrupt, and even criminal actions are learned. Thus it is of interest that a bombshell of news that has come to light, with shrapnel hitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Senator Griffo, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, Former State Senator Ray Meier, and several other prominent figures in the political circle around Utica, NY. The impact of this news could affect several elections, including the 2018 NY 22nd Congressional election where Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi has placed his aspirations, though outside the Mowhawk Valley little as reached the public.
In 2014, the first public statements about building a new hospital in the Utica area were revealed. It was just a concept, without any defined features, location, nor cost. But it had a goal of improving the care for the community. The news didn’t even blip the radar of the Southern Tier, as the relatively unknown Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi stated,
“I’d be interested to know what their plans are going forward and learning about the proposed project.” – Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi – November 18, 2014
But unknown to the public, a handful of key elected officials had begun to take action. Action that was questionable not in the goal of helping the public, but if it helps the public in the best manner. Actions taking place behind closed doors, apparently manipulating decisions and using the public as a means to an end. Essentially bringing to light and life some of the very worst fantasies of what the public thinks politics is like when not in the public eye.
It was from January 2015 through November 2015, according to documents provided under FOIA regulations to No Downtown Hospital and given to M V Consulting, that Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, Mowhawk Valley EDGE president Steven Dimeo, Scott Perra president of Mowhawk Valley Health System, and others began to orchestrate their actions. Of note is the fact that planning took place via private emails and in person meetings – which while not illegal is seen as a grey area, denying the public transparency and awareness of what was taking place.
The documents detail many facts. Starting from January 2015 with Steve DiMeo detailing how “…the net new wealth and net new jobs being part of the Buffalo Billions is a lot of bunk” when receiving pushback on the idea of the hospital and its funding not meeting required standards. Additionally a key fact that would never be revealed to the public until July 2015 was the targeting of a singular location for this venture in that same month – without any apparent due diligence or justification beyond the desire of Assemblyman Brindisi at that point, stating in part “Is this something we should consider for the Upstate Revitalization Fund?… I think downtown should be looked at first.”
Even further in early February 2015, DiMeo noted in part via email that, “My whole thought process in bringing Elan [Planning] on board is to make sure that we guide siting decision in favor of downtown.” That same month Assemblyman Brindisi emailed in part, “We need to focus on [State Senator] Griffo to make sure he is advocating in the [State] Senate. I pushed in my House this week with my Health Chair.”
While these statements can be seen as constructive by some, the dedication of a small group to help a community, the tone and nature of the secrecy and the manipulations involved are far less knightly. Demanding support in the State Senate, and controlling decisions are far from an open discussion or consideration of fact still not determined. Worse, and even more troubling is that fact that these individuals brokered a deal with Governor Cuomo for funding. Former State Senator Ray Meier highlighted this in an email where he said in part,
“In a nutshell, the Governor moved our figure up from $300 million to $800 million, and then added language making not less than 62.5% of that amount ($500 million) available for the Governor’s Upstate Recovery Initiative (URI), which is the proposed competitive economic development fund for upstate. This makes fully one third of the URI dependent on our money remaining intact. Clearly, the Governor is trying to bulletproof our money.”
But what the public was told that same day was different. Very different. In fact the public was told of considerations that had already been decided, as if they were still in discussion,
“I would stress that a new hospital has to be a part of an overall plan to repurpose the existing hospitals because the last thing I want to see are vacant hospitals causing blight in the region.” – Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi – February 22, 2015
The claim of concern for the community, and seeking to avoid blight with careful consideration, didn’t take long to ring false as by April Assemblyman Brindisi seemed to be making threats via email to EDGE, in part “I hope they are seriously considering downtown as their primary location. I hate to get into a situation where we’re in June and they make a selection without involving all the local officials that worked hard to make sure the funding made it into the final budget. I also hope they plan on abiding by the language of the law that makes clear the facility must be located in the major population center.”
This reality of course conflicts with the message of openness and encouragement by Assemblyman Brindisi in his public statement later in September after the funds were locked into place by Governor Cuomo and his repeated demand for a downtown location since January. Brindisi beguiled the public with a soft tone in public statements about inclusiveness and community that was completely lacking as the FOIA documents detail. “It’s going be a process involving the community and working with the hospital, and the Department of Health before the money is released to the state to help construct a new hospital.” But that was the very same time that Assemblyman Brindisi became aware of opposition to the plans of this seeming minor dictatorship.
It was September 2015 that the very community Brindisi claimed to involve, spoke out on Facebook. Brindisi wrote to Steve DiMeo and County Executive Anthony Picente, about this saying
“There is a Facebook group called No Downtown Hospital that is up to 300 members. I seem to remember the legislation stating there has to be community input on location. To date, I don’t believe the hospital has done any of that… I can foresee this becoming an issue. Eventually, this will hit mainstream media so we should discuss how to combat this. I know Ray [Meier] wants us to be low key on location but I don’t want public opinion derailing this. Any thoughts?”
The very act of people speaking up and voicing their opinion, to politicians elected to represent their views and concerns, was met with scorn (“The main objection outside of Bernie Sanders type logic…” – Steve DiMeo in response email to Brindisi) according to FOIA documents. The exact plan to stave off the public and manage criticism was not revealed in the documents we received. But the FOIA documents do identify that without pause, Brindisi, Picente, and DiMeo were joined by Delores Caruso of the NY Department of Labor in pushing forward with plans for the hospital, with Delores noting that State Senator Griffo “He now has no choice” in participating in their objectives.
There is more. The FOIA documents continue on, denoting scorn and scoffing of the public. All of which are details obscured from the public sight at the time. The response to the people Brindisi and Picente are sworn to represent may be seen by many as appalling, though Assemblyman Brindisi and County Executive Picente have tried to defend their actions recently. But questions remain.
No laws were broken, but why was there such a concerted and continuous lack of transparency? Why did this small group of politicos make determinations of fact, affecting hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially risking jobs and lives, without credible due diligence? How could Brindisi and Picente, and later apparently representative of the NY Labor Department command action from a State Senator? What does all of this say about the current state of NY politics and administration?
As this story continues, and spreads from Utica to Cortland and Norwich, and Binghamton as well as the entire Southern Tier if not the State, voters will have to think deeply about this. Is this how elected officials are supposed to conduct themselves? Is this the level of transparency that is healthy for a democracy? At the same time, Party leadership is sure to consider, is this a liability we can endure for the 2018 mid-terms and beyond?