SolarCity is an enormous project. It’s the anchor of Governor Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” announced during the 2012 State of the State address where Cuomo said,

We are ready to invest one billion in an economic development package for the City of Buffalo!

Turns out, $750 million worth of State money is going to SolarCity to build solar panels, which will presumably be in high demand as the nation transfers away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. How quickly that transition will be however, is anybody’s guess. But a simple rule in business is that you don’t build supply when there isn’t sufficient demand. I can make all the widgets I want, but if no one wants to buy them I’m gonna end up broke and throwing those widgets at the people who stop to laugh at me in my dumpster.

Under the arrangement for the SolarCity economic development plan at RiverBend, the State will own the building, and own the specialized manufacturing equipment that will supposedly be able to churn out 10,000 solar panels per day. As one Republican insider puts it, the concept of solar panels may poll well among Democrats, but that’s an extraordinary risk to put on taxpayers should this business fail to meet expectations. Democrats tend to believe in public investment to spur economic growth. Sometimes that can work. But bigger isn’t necessarily better. Especially if a burgeoning market is only just developing. Maybe one day there will be demand for thousands of solar panels every day, but some might argue the lobbies for more traditional fuel sources aren’t going allow that transition to happen overnight. Going forward energy will likely be drawn from multiple sources. Think of our energy as a big pool, which connects to the grid. One needs multiple sources of energy constantly feeding into that pool, at least for the foreseeable. Solar may very well be the long term answer to our energy needs. But it’s unclear if it will be the answer in 2016 when the plant will be up in running ( 2016 is in three months, btw ).

The man with the plan to build SolarCity is Lou Ciminelli, a big donor to Governor Cuomo. How big, you ask? It appears as though Lou and his wife AnnLouise have given the Cuomo Campaign roughly $96,500 over the years. And now this relationship appears to be the subject of a federal inquiry. But that doesn’t include money given through a Limited Liability Company or LLC, known as Highland Park Village. Stay with me now, because this gets complicated. Jon Reznick of Competitive Advantage Research gets credit for finding this connection.

The City of Buffalo issued this press release in May 2012, referring to Strickler Development Group, an LLC owned by Ciminelli. But as it turns out, Strickler had already filed to change it’s name to Highland Park Village. And Highland Park Village contributed yet another $25,000 donation to Cuomo/Hochul in May 2014.

So, here is the timeline…Ciminelli and his wife contribute more than $25,000 to Cuomo in January 2014. It’s over the limit and some of the money has to go back as a refund. Ciminelli gets selected as the developer for SolarCity shortly thereafter, and then in May Highland Park Village gives another $25,000, which in Reznick’s words makes both contributions nice “bookends for both before and after the SolarCity contract was awarded.”

So, if you are keeping track at home, Ciminelli and his wife have contributed $123,850 to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns. And that doesn’t count the other half of the Ciminelli family, including Paul, which would bring the total closer to $128,000.

Investing a billion dollars in Buffalo may be just the prescription the doctor ordered. Nobody disputes that the economy in Buffalo needs a shot in the arm, and already there are signs that construction needs are pushing down the unemployment rate. But when subpoenas start to fly over the manner in which public contracts were awarded, it starts to give off a stink. And that stink could persuade additional private investors to stay away. There may be absolutely no merit to any of the inquiries, but this project probably doesn’t need a taint this early in the game. Especially since it’s roughly a billion dollars worth of taxpayer money.