This is not the kind of national attention most governors seek.
Congressional Republicans are vowing to probe a $637 million alleged pay-to-play scheme involving Gov. Kathy Hochul and a deep-pocketed campaign donor if they retake the House of Representatives this November.
“As a taxpayer, it really pisses me off that my governor is paying twice as much for a product that other states are and that the money is going to one of her large donors,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island-Brooklyn) told The Post Thursday.
“It smells so bad,” she added.
The vow comes amid growing calls for local, state and federal officials — who have remained silent about whether they will investigate — to probe how $300,000 in campaign cash to Hochul might have helped the New Jersey-based Digital Gadgets land the no-bid contract for 52 million COVID rapid tests, a deal first revealed by the Times Union this summer.
“With your duty to enforce federal laws and ensure fair and impartial administration of justice, we ask that you use your position within the Department of Justice to promote transparency in government spending and investigate this potential kickback scheme that has defrauded taxpayers millions of dollars,” reads a Sept. 26 letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland from GOP members of Congress including Malliotakis and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-North Country).
Kendall Coffey, a former US attorney for Florida’s Southern District in Miami, said, “If you have a contract of that size and campaign contributions of that size the authorities would be taking a look at it.”
But he said such “quid pro quo” cases are difficult to prove, particularly under US Supreme court rulings in recent years.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office would need cooperators or recordings,” said Dennis Vacco, former US Attorney for the Buffalo region and Democratic ex-state attorney general.
Garland, state Attorney General Letitia James, Albany County District Attorney David Soares and the newly-established state Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government did not return requests for comment.
A spokesman for state Inspector General Lucy Lang, whose office is charged with rooting out corruption in state agencies, would not confirm or deny that she was looking into the matter.
Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose office oversees state contracts, declined to comment.
Democratic legislators, who have supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly, meanwhile, have expressed no public interest in investigating the deal from the legislative side.
Hochul and Digital Gadgets founder Charlie Tebele have repeatedly denied wrongdoing – but that has hardly quieted calls from government watchdogs, politicians and newspaper columnists alike for an investigation.
“This is a big deal. There is a lot of money and it looks really, really bad and there is a dark cloud of pay-to-play hanging over this – and it’s not going to go away,” John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany said last week.
Tebele held a fundraiser for Hochul days before she announced a state of emergency suspending oversight rules on state contract – a move she has justified by claiming that New York needed to buy as many tests as it could to keep schools open.
“Governor Hochul did not oversee the procurement process and was not involved in the day-to-day procurement decisions,” spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays previously told The Post.
The roughly $12 price per test has raised eyebrows considering how Digital Gadgets charged New Yorkers roughly twice as much as what California paid a manufacturer for the same exact tests – potentially hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.
“If there is federal funding involved the Justice Department and US attorneys have jurisdiction to investigate,” Vacco added.
The Democratic incumbent has vowed to remake state government more ethical ways following the 2021 downfall of Cuomo, whose enduring years of investigations by the likes of US Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York over the so-called “Buffalo Billion” economic program that led to criminal convictions for several gubernatorial associates.
“We’ve done such cases and they’re tough to prove. They are easy cases. But once in a while people leave fingerprints,” Coffey said.
Damian Williams, the current US attorney for the Southern District, declined to comment.
A campaign ad called “Kickback Kathy” – released Thursday by Republican rival Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk) – highlighted how the scandal has given him a new way to eat into her advantages with fundraising, polling and party registrations.
“Why didn’t you try to go directly to the company that actually manufactured the tests like California did – and get it at a lower price.” Zeldin said at a campaign stop in Rochester.
The Hochul campaign declined to respond Thursday.
But the Long Island pol is just one of many officials and transparency advocates demanding that someone, whether at the local, state or federal, get busy finding the facts about the controversial deal.
Hochul expressed no regrets Wednesday when asked about what steps her administration has taken to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests with donors like Tebele – whose son somehow landed a job with her campaign.
“I would do that all again,” Hochul said about the deal.
So, Villanova is in the Sweet 16. Yawn. Ho-hum. What else is new? Next news item, please. It’s so easy to take things for granted at times. Such is the byproduct of the sustained excellence to which Villanova has treated its fans in the Jay Wright era,