Monday, August 18, 2008

Wind Companies Bring Whiff of Corruption

by Nicholas Confessore
The New York Times
August 17, 2008

Everywhere that Janet and Ken Tacy looked, the wind companies had been there first. Dozens of people in their small town had already signed lease options that would allow wind towers on their properties. Two Burke Town Board members had signed private leases even as they negotiated with the companies to establish a zoning law to permit the towers. A third board member, the Tacys said, bragged about the commissions he would earn by selling concrete to build tower bases. And, the Tacys said, when they showed up at a Town Board meeting to complain, they were told to get lost.

“There were a couple of times when they told us to just shut up,” recalled Mr. Tacy, sitting in his kitchen on a recent evening.

Lured by state subsidies and buoyed by high oil prices, the wind industry has arrived in force in upstate New York, promising to bring jobs, tax revenue and cutting-edge energy to the long-struggling region. But in town after town, some residents say, the companies have delivered something else: an epidemic of corruption and intimidation, as they rush to acquire enough land to make the wind farms a reality.

“It really is renewable energy gone wrong,” said the Franklin County district attorney, Derek P. Champagne, who began a criminal inquiry into the Burke Town Board last spring and was quickly inundated with complaints from all over the state about the wind companies. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo agreed this year to take over the investigation.

“It’s a modern-day gold rush,” Mr. Champagne said.

Mr. Cuomo is investigating whether wind companies improperly influenced local officials to get permission to build wind towers, as well as whether different companies colluded to divide up territory and avoid bidding against one another for the same land.

The industry appears to be shying away from trying to erect the wind farms in more affluent areas downstate, even where the wind is plentiful, like Long Island.

But in the small towns near the Canadian border, families and friendships have been riven by feuds over the lease options, which can be worth tens of thousands of dollars a year in towns where the median household income may hover around $30,000. Rumors circulate about neighbors who can suddenly afford new tractors or trucks. Opponents of the wind towers even say they have received threats; one local activist said that on two occasions, she had found her windshield bashed in.

“My sisters and brothers won’t even talk to me anymore,” said Mr. Tacy, who with his wife has become active in recent years in a network of people who oppose the wind companies. “They tear communities apart.” Opponents of the farms say their scenic views are being marred by the hundreds of wind towers already in place, some of which stand nearly 400 feet tall. They also complain of the irritating hum of spinning turbines and what they say are wasteful public subsidies to wind companies.

But corruption is a major concern. In at least 12 counties, Mr. Champagne said, evidence has surfaced about possible conflicts of interest or improper influence.

In Prattsburgh, N.Y., a Finger Lakes community, the town supervisor cast the deciding vote allowing private land to be condemned to make way for a wind farm there, even after acknowledging that he had accepted real estate commissions on at least one land deal involving the farm’s developer.

A town official in Bellmont, near Burke, took a job with a wind company after helping shepherd through a zoning law to permit and regulate the towers, according to local residents. And in Brandon, N.Y., nearby, the town supervisor told Mr. Champagne that after a meeting during which he proposed a moratorium on wind towers, he had been invited to pick up a gift from the back seat of a wind company representative’s car.

When the supervisor, Michael R. Lawrence, looked inside, according to his complaint to Mr. Champagne, he saw two company polo shirts and a leather pouch that he suspected contained cash.

When Mr. Lawrence asked whether the pouch was part of the gift, the representative replied, “That’s up to you,” according to the complaint.

Last month, Mr. Cuomo subpoenaed two wind companies, Noble Environmental Power, based in Connecticut, and First Wind, based in Massachusetts, seeking a broad range of documents. Both companies say they are cooperating with the attorney general.

Read more here.

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