Corruption and the CPV power plant

The mayor of Middletown, Joe DeStefano, is arranging to have the air quality monitored near the Competitive Power Ventures’ (CPV) huge 650 megawatt power plant in Wawayanda because of complaints from nearby residents. The plant is being tested, but because the pipeline that will eventually carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania to the facility is not yet finished, the testing is being powered by diesel fuel. Some residents say it has been making them sick since the intermittent testing began at the end of January.

While that is going on, the trial of Joseph Percoco is underway in Manhattan. Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is accused of, among other things, taking bribes from CPV worth at least $300,000. According to the federal prosecutors, most of that came in the form of a $90,000-a-year salary for Percoco’s wife, Lisa. A colleague who worked with Lisa testified that she worked on the job a total of about 40 hours through the course of a year. Another testified that Lisa’s employment was unusual in that it required no resumé or interview.

Percoco was very close to Cuomo, and left state employment in 2014 to run Cuomo’s reelection campaign. But according to much testimony at the trail, Percoco never really left. He maintained his office next door to Cuomo’s, made more than 800 phone calls from his office phone after having left the job, and continued to use his influence in various ways in the Cuomo administration.

The testimony has prompted officials from the state Republican Committee to file a complaint against Percoco and Cuomo with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics charging that Percoco’s use of the state office for campaign business was a violation of the Public Officers Law.

Activists who are members of Protect Orange County (POC)—who have been fighting the construction of the CPV power plant for years—insist that had it not been for the corrupt actions on the part of Percoco and others, the project would never have received the permits it needed to advance.

Early on, Percoco lobbied for the CPV plant to receive a power-purchase agreement (PPA) with the state, which would have guaranteed that the state would purchase any electricity produced by the plant. But that fell through, according to POC, because the “U.S. Supreme Court ruled the purchasing scheme unconstitutional interference in the wholesale electricity market.”

CPV sought and found other sources of funding, but that was not the end of Percoco’s efforts to assist the project. A POC press release says, “The fact that Percoco received payments all the way through 2016, while the power-purchase agreement was taken off the table in 2014, strongly indicates that Percoco was rendering other services besides failed lobbying for the PPA. Illicit payments described in the trial coincide with dozens of state permits to green light the plant, including inexplicable ones, like NYS Department of Environmental Conservation allowing CPV to buy retired pollution credits that were supposed to have been taken off the market, and a ‘lightened regulatory statute’ designation that allowed CPV permitting to dispense with State Environmental Quality Review Act, health impacts verification and other requirements.”

POC also accuses the Cuomo administration of being cozy with CPV officials while blocking members of the public at large from taking part in the process: “As it was spreading money around, CPV gained extraordinary access to state agency heads that met together and struck a backroom deal to support the plant, while citizens groups concerned about the plant got zero access to these agencies, and were even denied meetings with junior staff.”

POC says while CPV was in the permitting phase, the chair of the Public Service Commission (PSC) was changed. “The previous chair had been replaced in June 2013 by Audrey Zilbelman (who has since taken a job in Australia). She was widely seen to be less independent/more receptive to the governor’s instructions than her predecessor. But it has been pointed out that the replacement occurred in the context of the push to green-light CPV, and a perception that her predecessor’s PSC wasn’t doing enough to support the project.”

POC member Pramilla Malick says, “Percoco and CPV’s influence were factors in Zibelman’s appointment. When Percoco and CPV’s Braith Kelly met with close Cuomo adviser Michael Del Giudice 2010, the agenda was to shape the state’s entire energy policy. The policy subsequently adopted (Reforming the Energy Vision, Clean Energy Standard) was favorable to CPV….”

It could be argued that POC has a negative bias against the CPV project. But given the clear instances of corruption that have been cited in the Percoco trial, it’s hard to dismiss its assertions out of hand.

 

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