ALBANY — US Rep. Tom Suozzi on Thursday called for an investigation into Gov. Kathy Hochul’s use of state aircraft and asked Hochul herself to refer the matter to Attorney General Letitia James’ office for investigation.
Suozzi, a Democratic congressman from Long Island, is running for governor in the Democratic primary against Hochul, who took office in August. She emerged as the clear front-runner in the June primary, buoyed by historically fast campaign fundraising while frequently using state planes to travel around New York.
“She has failed in her duty as governor to prepare for COVID,” Suozzi claimed in a Zoom press conference Thursday morning. “She did politics and raised funds. And they used taxpayer-funded government aircraft.”
James’ office did not immediately have comment, and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office – which referred a matter related to former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo possible abuse of government resources to James last year – declined to comment.
Hochul’s office declined to respond to Suozzi’s request for an investigation by the attorney general Thursday, and also declined to respond to numerous other requests from Suozzi, including the release of more information about her unprecedented fundraising by Hochul.
Hochul’s office said it has so far identified three “air travel” that deserved a refund to taxpayers – all flagged first in a Times Union article last week – which were invoiced on Wednesday and reimbursed by Hochul’s campaign on Thursday morning. The total amount reimbursed was $19,949, according to Hochul’s office.
Its press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said that in December the governor’s office hired a new assistant ethics enforcement attorney, Pei Pei Cheng de-Castro, a former senior investigator for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
“Governor Hochul is committed to transparency, accountability and the highest ethical standards,” Crampton-Hays said. “The governor’s new assistant attorney overseeing ethics is completing a thorough review of all aircraft usage and the necessary reimbursements identified to date have been made, and we are creating additional controls and processes to better ensure consistent adherence to the strictest ethical guidelines.”
Hochul’s office says it reimburses taxpayers for all miles in state cars related to political activities and charters planes for political activities.
In 2008, while Cuomo was Attorney General, he investigated the possible misuse of state aircraft by former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s office had requested an investigation but made no formal referral giving Cuomo’s office subpoena power. Although the attorney general’s office is generally required to obtain a referral to investigate public corruption, Cuomo’s office investigated anyway and the resulting report on the “troopergate.” thing criticized Spitzer’s office on state police abuse charges while exonerating Bruno.
Suozzi’s call follows two reports in the Times Union last week. It has been investigated how Several taxpayer-funded flights Hochul made during her first 45 days in office probably should have been reimbursed by her campaign, but weren’t. The other revealed that before Hochul became governor, she asked to bring state planes to a campaign fundraiser in Buffalo was rejected by Cuomo’s top adviser, who argued that such a flight for non-government purposes was illegal.
After Hochul became governor, she took a state plane from Syracuse to Buffalo to attend a private campaign event on September 19 without conducting any state business locally, before departing Buffalo the next morning. State aircraft cannot be used if the primary purpose of a flight is campaign related.
Hochul’s office citing a 2013 state ethics report, argues that the Sept. 19 flight was legal because she was returning “home” to Buffalo. The 2013 appraisal had allowed Cuomo to fly from his primary residence in Westchester County to locations outside of Albany for official reasons. Hochul, who was conducting official business in Syracuse before flying to Buffalo, argues that she was returning home to Buffalo, where she started the day.
Hochul moved into the Executive Mansion in Albany after taking office, but still has a condo in Buffalo; Previous state ethics reviews have not addressed the issue of multiple residences and whether a governor can travel to one of them on taxpayer-funded air travel.
Hochul’s campaign has now reimbursed taxpayers for using the plane on Sept. 19, according to her office, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much of the reimbursement came from driving from Syracuse to Buffalo and how much from a trip earlier that day from Buffalo to Syracuse, which had included a private campaign event.
Suozzi’s campaign posted a video Thursday highlighting Hochul’s use of state aircraft and her pledge to restore ethical and transparent government in Albany. Suozzi also asked Hochul to take several other actions, including declassifying her schedule beyond her first 45 days in office, any request for Hochul’s use of state aircraft, and any approvals or denials by Hochul’s attorney. Suozzi asked Hochul to release a full list of who Hochul met with during her first 45 days in office at 64 “private” events related to the campaign, how many were fundraisers, and the fundraiser hosts.
In October, the Times Union filed a Freedom of Information Act motion searching for Hochul’s daily routines, including hosts of fundraisers. But the reply from Hochul’s office written on them Government website Early January did not include information about fundraiser hosts or the types of “private” campaign-related events being held.
Suozzi also asked Hochul to reimburse taxpayers for all illegal trips, as well as all campaign funds raised at “private events” for improper taxpayer-sponsored trips. Suozzi said that as governor he would ban the use of state aircraft for all non-official events and urged Hochul to do the same.
Hochul’s office said last week that her lawyer would “review” her flights and that her campaign would make any necessary reimbursements.
On Thursday, Hochul’s campaign declined to respond to Suozzi’s calls for the release of information about past attorney refusals to fly and about her campaign’s fundraising efforts. Hochul’s office also declined to deal with calls for the return of funds raised during the trips in question and a ban on state aircraft for non-official events.
According to her schedule, during her first 45 days in office, Hochul attended 64 “private events” related to her gubernatorial campaign, including donor meetings and fundraisers, helping her campaign raise a record $10 million in her first three months in office Hochul’s campaign relied heavily on it at the head of Albany lobby firms to raise campaign funds, ask that you pledge to raise $250,000 for events Hochul attends in person.
“The lobbyists threw in their money, not only the lobbyists themselves, but also their clients who have business with the state,” Suozzi said on Thursday.
Amid a tumultuous schedule that juggled government and campaign activities, Hochul used state-issued aircraft for 45 flights in its first 45 days in office. None of the trips were considered “mixed use” by Hochul’s office – which consisted of both government and campaign-related activities – despite a busy campaign schedule on many of the trips. And none of the airfare to use a state Beechcraft King Air 250 or state helicopter has been reimbursed to taxpayers by Hochul’s campaign.
Many of the “private events” were consecutive meetings lasting less than an hour and took place in New York City, suggesting they were meetings with campaign donors.