Alain Kaloyeros (photo via the Governor's Office on flickr)
It is easy to spot Alain Kaloyeros, head of SUNY Polytechnic, around Albany. You can often see him jetting around Stuyvesant Plaza, an upscale shopping center basically next door to the campus he built, which features a spaceship-like structure rising out of the dirt of constant construction.
It doesn't hurt that he drives a Ferrari Spider with the license plate "Dr. Nano." He is New York's highest paid state employee.
Working with five governors, and powerful legislative allies like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Kaloyeros has overseen the development of the nano school while attracting millions of dollars of outside investment. He oversees over $14 billion worth of campuses, labs, and scientific "clean rooms" across the state. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Kaloyeros added to his portfolio helping the state direct the Buffalo Billion program that has attracted major investments from IBM and SolarCity - and now, from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
As Kaloyeros' power and influence has grown many who observe and are involved in state government say that checks and balances around his decisions have evaporated.
"The governor loves this guy. He's got carte blanche," said one legislator who is particularly interested in Kaloyeros' work and requested anonymity in discussing it. Kaloyeros makes more than $800,000 a year - Cuomo earns $179,000 annually, while state legislators earn just under $80,000.
Kaloyeros' cavalier attitude, flaunting his extensive power, and what some say is a focus on promoting profits over academia and rewarding allies appear to have earned his projects the attention of federal investigators led by Bharara.
Bharara's office has subpoenaed SUNY Polytechnic and insiders say the focus of the probe is the request-for-proposal process and whether officials tailored RFPs to award contracts to major political donors and allies. While SUNY Polytechnic says that Kaloyeros has not been subpoenaed, watchdogs are concerned that there is not enough oversight in place to prevent Kaloyeros from benefiting himself in these deals.
SUNY Polytechnic issued a statement saying the organization doesn't believe it or any of its employees are under investigation. and claiming they have been transparent. Asked about the investigation last week, Gov. Cuomo told reporters, "You can have investigations but that does not mean there's any 'there' there, or that anyone did anything wrong."
Journalists who have attempted to scrutinize contracts and requests for proposal have had their freedom of information requests refused, or been given censored documents by the Cuomo administration and Kaloyeros' organizations, raising further concerns about the transparency surrounding the investment of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds into private business.
Good government groups including Reinvent Albany, Citizen Action, NYPIRG, and League of Women Voters have called on reforms to peel back the layers of opaqueness that surround the the state's investment in semi-private and private entities, which is the essence of the Buffalo Billion project meant to stir the city's economy.
"By using a mixture of non-profit groups—including Ft. Schuyler and the SUNY Research Foundation—and academic institutions like SUNY Polytechnic, the State is blurring responsibility and reducing the accountability for decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars," the groups said in a recent statement. "Subsidy deals are complex, often involve a real risk to public funds, and have the potential for significant conflict of interest. We wonder, who exactly is making the crucial decisions about who wins these deals? What is the basis of these decisions and how can we be sure that the deals themselves are well conceived and fairly awarded?"
Kaloyeros has repeatedly rebuffed interview and information requests from the Investigative Post's Jim Heaney, who has doggedly reported on Buffalo Billion spending from the start. "I told you once and I told you a million times. We are not political operatives nor do we respond to perceived threats and terrorism," Kaloyeros told Heaney in an email.
At public events, Kaloyeros has refused to take questions from the press about Bharara's interest in his work. He told a Syracuse reporter that it isn't polite to ask off-topic questions.
Kaloyeros' behavior has frightened some of his colleagues involved in the partnerships between academia and state government who feel he has far too much power over the state's investments. Further, they say that his public displays of wealth and power are not becoming of someone in his position and they expected it to draw the attention. Kaloyeros is not known to be an easy boss.
Some critics point to Kaloyeros' Facebook page that some say can resemble that of a teenager. The page is a mixture of bathroom selfies, memes about slow drivers, and pictures of sports cars and Darth Vader.
Kaloyeros was raised in East Beirut, Lebanon. A Times Union article from 2012 describes how as a 19-year-old college student Kaloyeros was attacked by what he assumed were members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the start of the Lebanese Civil War. His face was sliced and he was left for dead. One of his friends was actually killed. Later he said he joined a Christian militia and was trained by Israeli forces in tanks and artillery, later commanding a group of two dozen street fighters.
That part of Kaloyeros' life appears to have been balanced by his love for science. His father was a school teacher and his mother worked in marketing for Sanyo and SONY. Kaloyeros left Lebanon in 1980 to attend graduate school in the U.S. and in 1988 earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois.
In 2002, Kaloyeros told the Times that the "in crowd" in his high school was made up of the smart kids. ''Better be nice to geeks,'' he said, ''because the way the world is going, chances are you're going to end up working for one.''
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette