With a widening probe of New York state government, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara appears to be taking aim at the nebulous relationship between money and politics itself — a long and murky association in Albany and in capitals across the nation.
The federal prosecutor, whose investigations have already toppled two legislative leaders, is now believed to be investigating Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature economic development project, the Buffalo Billion, which awarded significant state money to a company run by a Cuomo donor.
To politicians who grouse that Bharara is attempting to indict the political system itself, the latest probe appears to be an effort to criminalize what is essentially business as usual — something that has proven difficult for prosecutors before.
The New York Post was first to report the investigation, which the newspaper says focuses on how Buffalo Billion funds were awarded to private companies in a bid to jumpstart Buffalo's stagnant economy. SUNY Polytechnic, one of the state agencies involved in the deal, signed a $1.5 million legal contract with a Manhattan law firm this summer but won't say whether the work is related to a federal investigation.
Cuomo has so far distanced himself from the investigation, saying Wednesday, "I don't know that much about it." But he defended the overall Buffalo Billion project, saying it has changed the city's outlook.
Asked recently whether it's a problem that people getting state grants and contracts are contributing to his campaign fund, Cuomo noted that's not new.
"It hasn't been a problem for the past 100 years, so I don't know why it would be today," he said.
Bharara has not commented on the Buffalo investigation, which is taking place in a city under the jurisdiction of Western District U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr., who is married to Cuomo's lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul.
Whether illegal or merely unseemly, the ties between elected officials and their contributors should be a matter of concern to voters, according to Richard Brodsky, an attorney and former Democratic state lawmaker from Westchester County who now writes about government and politics.
"Corporations don't spend tens of millions of dollars as a matter of good citizenship," he said. "The system is funded by investors and investors inevitably expect a return, regardless of whether actual laws are broken or not."
A report from an anti-corruption commission Cuomo himself created in 2013 and then shut down the next year identified "eyebrow-raising patterns of potential misconduct" based on a review of campaign contributions to elected officials from donors with interests in legislative outcomes.
The relationship between well-heeled campaign contributors and elected leaders is indeed a long one throughout the country, as businessman and GOP presidential contender Donald Trump noted in a debate last month when discussing why he made political contributions.
"I gave to many people," he said. "I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system."
Cuomo's critics have seized on the Buffalo investigation. Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox called the Buffalo Billion "the epitome of Cuomo's crony capitalism."
Prosecutors in New York have had a mixed record when it comes to politicians charged with doing favors for donors.
Former Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., a Democrat, was sentenced to 14 years in prison last month for a scheme to take bribes from FBI agents posing as real estate investors as well as a carnival promoter looking for help with local permits
But last year, Joseph Bruno, the former GOP leader of New York's Senate, was acquitted of federal corruption charges after prosecutors failed to convince a jury that the Rensselaer County Republican's payments from a businessman who received state grants amounted to a quid pro quo bribery scheme.
Bharara's office is currently prosecuting two former legislative leaders — ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, R-Long Island, and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan — on unrelated corruption charges.
Skelos is accused of using his position to extort payments from real estate interests and finagle employment for his son from an environmental firm and a medical malpractice company. Silver is accused of taking $4 million in kickbacks by exploiting his position. Both men resigned their leadership posts but are keeping their legislative seats while they fight the charges.
In court papers, Silver's defense attorneys have argued that the allegations facing their client aren't crimes, but instead constituted "longstanding features of New York state government that the U.S. attorney finds distasteful."