Ethics Commission Subpoenaed Hochul Administration Over Bills Box Seats

Asked for records related to top politicians’ use of a Buffalo Bills suite, Empire State Development cited potential interference with a law enforcement investigation.

Chris Bragg   ·   May 31, 2024
New York Governor Kathy Hochul shakes hands with someone in a Buffalo Bills uniform at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey.
Governor Kathy Hochul attends a game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium on November 14, 2021. | Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The New York ethics watchdog agency has subpoenaed Governor Kathy Hochul’s economic development agency for records related to top Albany politicians’ use of a Buffalo Bills luxury suite, New York Focus has learned.

Hochul, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, and 13 others gained exclusive access to the state-owned “I Love New York” suite for a December 17 clash between the Bills and the Dallas Cowboys. The officials brought several guests, including Hochul’s husband, a state lobbyist whom Heastie has been quietly dating, and a lobbyist who was Heastie’s college roommate.

According to state law, a public official cannot use their position “to secure unwarranted privileges,” for themselves or others, that are not available to the general public. In March, former top lobbying regulator David Grandeau filed a complaint with the state’s ethics oversight body, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG), arguing that several attendees had gotten premium football tickets at a bargain price because of their close relationship to a politician, and that politicians didn’t have valid governmental reasons to attend.

Now, the state ethics commission is investigating the complaint. In response to a Freedom of Information Law request, the Hochul administration’s economic development arm told New York Focus that it could not provide a subpoena related to the game because the “responsive records” were “compiled for law enforcement purposes,” and “disclosure would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

COELIG only regulates potential violations of civil laws. Still, state agencies in the past have considered civil investigations, not just criminal ones, to trigger the FOIL “law enforcement” exemption, which allows them to withhold records that are part of an inquiry.

New York Focus had requested a copy of any subpoena the ethics commission had sent to Empire State Development concerning use of the luxury suite during the Cowboys-Bills game since March, when Grandeau submitted his complaint.

“None of the attendees had a valid governmental reason for attending the game,” Grandeau wrote in the complaint. “Instead, they clearly abused their power to generate a valuable perk for themselves and the lobbyists that accompanied that was not available to everyday New York citizens and taxpayers.”

Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul, told New York Focus on Friday that neither the governor’s office nor Hochul personally had been subpoenaed in the matter.

A spokesperson for Heastie did not answer a question on Thursday about whether the Assembly had been subpoenaed.

The investigation is a notable step for COELIG, which has been quiet during its nearly two years of existence, and has yet to finalize an enforcement case. And it comes at a time of legal peril for the commission, which may ultimately need help from top state politicians — including Hochul and Heastie — to avoid extinction.

The ethics commission is under threat thanks to a lawsuit filed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom it had been pursuing over a potential violation of state ethics law concerning his use of state employees to help produce his pandemic-era memoir.

A state supreme court judge, followed by a mid-level appellate court, agreed with Cuomo’s argument that the 2022 law creating the body was unconstitutional. The ethics commission is now hoping that the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will overrule the lower court decisions.

If Cuomo prevails in the legal battle, top state politicians may face the choice of whether to save the ethics commission. Lawmakers could choose to pass a law revamping COELIG’s appointment structure to address the constitutional concerns Cuomo raised. Or they could replace the ethics commission altogether.

A COELIG spokesperson declined to comment.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Governor Kathy Hochul, wearing Buffalo Bills gear, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, wearing Dallas Cowboys gear, at the Buffalo Bills game on December 17, 2023.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Governor Kathy Hochul, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the Buffalo Bills game on December 17, 2023. | Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The “I Love New York” suite, as stipulated in the 2013 lease agreement between the Bills and New York state, is supposed to be used to benefit western New York taxpayers — “fostering economic development, tourism and public awareness” for Buffalo, Erie County, and New York — or for “other charitable or public functions.”

At the time, Empire State Development leadership framed the initiative as a tool to bring out-of-state business to the Buffalo area, allowing “business leaders from around the country to know what a great place it is to invest and grow jobs.” And the Buffalo Bills got $95 million in taxpayer funds for a stadium renovation.

Guidelines adopted by ESD require those requesting the suite to verify that their attendance furthers economic development, public, or charitable interests. As New York Focus previously reported, the form ESD requires attendees to fill out does not ask for such verification. The guidelines also state that parties requesting the suite should provide a statement describing their purpose, but ESD did not require Heastie’s office to submit such a description.

Beyond the subpoena, New York Focus requested other documents from ESD related to the December 17 game. One sought a receipt showing the 16 attendees’ food and drink expenditures during the game; the other sought any document the governor’s office or Assembly submitted to ESD describing why various attendees’ presence at the game had met state criteria for receiving a ticket.

In both cases, the agency cited the same law enforcement exemption, which allows an agency to withhold a record when it’s been provided in response to an investigation.

An ESD spokesperson has argued that a photo Hochul tweeted from the suite on December 17 — showing herself, Heastie, and Peoples-Stokes — boosted public awareness of the state and western New York.

ESD argues that elected officials networked with several local business officials who also sat in the suite, providing an economic development purpose to officials’ attendance. ESD did not explain how those elected officials’ plus-ones — or Heastie’s college roommate — could have served a similar purpose.

Update: May 31, 2024 — This story has been updated to include a response that Hochul spokesperson Avi Small sent after publication, noting that the governor and her executive office had not been subpoenaed by COELIG. Previously, Small had not provided a response since May 8.

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
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