Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Questions Surround Gov's Aqueduct Pick

By Patricia Adams

The sigh of relief that came with last week’s award of the bid to redevelop Aqueduct Racetrack was followed this week by a sigh of contempt from local elected officials and residents alike.

The focus of local furor centers on allegations swirling rampantly about Albany that David Paterson is on the cusp of a possible resignation from the governorship -- and that the bid award was motivated by political agenda. The contract in question is for the installation of 4,500 video lottery terminals at the struggling Ozone Park venue.

On Friday afternoon Paterson’s lead counsel, Peter Kiernan, made statements admitting politics was a critical factor in choosing the Aqueduct Entertainment Group as the winner. Kiernan’s statements came on the heels of protestations from groups who lost out on the bid, citing a flawed process complicated by what they called political favoritism.

James Featherstonhaugh, a veteran Albany lobbyist who represented Delaware North in the bidding, called the process and its associ- ated delays, “bizarre,” adding that he “never witnessed anything like it in 40 years of experience in Albany.”

State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) spoke out on Friday during an interview with NY1. “I have been a critic of it [the process] ever since I felt that we had the same number of bidders for the last eight months and we’ve had all their financial information for the last eight months. We could have made this decision some time in 2009,” said Addabbo, “it took us this long to make this decision and then when the decision is made, it’s questionable.”

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer has been involved from the inception of the Aqueduct proposal. “It’s a very serious issue that we have these potential complications,” Pheffer told The Forum. “The state needs this money by April 1 and we can only hope that everything will move forward. I assume they [AEG] are going to come up with the $300 million and if they can’t I trust that they’ll tell us so that we can move on.” Pheffer says she was particularly encouraged by the transparency AEG displayed throughout the process.

During an interview with The Forum, Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton expressed confidence in the winning bidder. "AEG's proposal to develop the VLT facility is a solid one, the company has been communicating with us and has been forthcoming over the course of the past year with any information the Community Board requested,” she said. “The conditions set forth as part of the decision are certainly reasonable ones and AEG has indicated the company can meet them. We expect that it will.”

Braton indicated that she shares the dismay of both Addabbo and Pheffer over extended delays and agrees that the focus must be on progress. “It's time this project become a reality. We look forward to working with AEG and their NY and Queens partners: Levine Builders, Turner Construction, and Green- Star Services to create the VLT facility along with the thousands of much-needed jobs it will create.”

Jeffrey Levine, a partner in AEG, said his group “was selected by Governor Paterson, Senator Smith and Speaker Silver because our bid represents the best value for the taxpayers of New York and the best plan for the residents of Queens. We will pay the $300 million upfront licensing fee by March 31, 2010, and are working towards signing the MOU and breaking ground as soon as possible."

Andrew Frank, a spokesman for AEG said the consortium was “very pleased to have been selected. We understand that the other bidders are disappointed. Had we lost we would be [disappointed] too.” Frank expressed confidence in the future of Aqueduct project under AEG’s lead. “We put ourselves in a po- sition to have been selected and we’ll get through it. We are going to pay the state $300 million, provide the jobs we promised and build it.”

On Tuesday, Paterson called a press conference and struck what was defined by one observer as “an almost defiant pose” following an interview with the Albany bureau of the New York Times. Paterson maintained that he would not be leaving the governor’s mansion unless the decision was made “at the ballot box” by the voters. The only option for Paterson leaving office before his termwould be “in a box.”

Now the state and local community sur- rounding Aqueduct will wait to see if AEG can meet the conditions imposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in order for the deal to be final and move through the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) process.

As part of the agreement to accept AEG, Silver laid out four “non-negotiable” terms:

--AEG must pay a $300 million up-front licensing fee.

--Anyone with a felony conviction within the past 15 years is barred from being a partner in the deal.

--The project must be environmentally sound.

--Legislative leaders must have veto power over any subsequent changes to the plan.

Following the announcement by Silver, AEG announced that the Darman Group would step down as a key partner in the project because of a misdemeanor conviction against one of its leaders, Darryl Greene. Greene has closes ties to AEG partner former congressman Floyd Flake, and state Senate President Malcolm Smith.

AEG released a statement on Tuesday to address the situation regarding political affiliations. "We can unequivocally state that Senator Smith nor any government official involved in this process will ever be employed by Aqueduct Entertainment Group or any of its partners, investors or affiliates.”

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