ALBANY - The region's largest environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy, is now under the microscope of state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Following a New York Post article this week detailing that the state overpaid for forest preserve lands primarily in the Adirondacks, Cuomo has opened a formal investigation into how the Nature Conservancy values its massive holdings and who the $3.5 billion green group influences in Albany.
Office of the Attorney General officials said Wednesday that Gov. David Paterson requested the inquiry after the New York Post reported the Conservancy recently reaped a 57 percent profit on land sold to the state that it had only owned for three years. And, that sale came during a time land values fell considerably.
In a letter to Cuomo, Paterson noted that no evidence of legal wrongdoing has surfaced, but he did authorize the Attorney General to probe the value assessment methodology employed in the sale and the sway the Conservancy wields over Albany power brokers.
"If you discover evidence of such criminality that warrants the expansion of this referral, we will consider expanding the scope to grant you that additional authority," Paterson wrote.
Cuomo's spokesman said the probe also extends into the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who holds the state's purse strings.
In 2008, the state bought a 20,000 acre Clinton County tract from the Nature Conservancy for $10 million, a $3.7 million increase over what the green group paid in 2005.
Yet, according to the state Office of Real Property, property values in the region only increased 15 percent over that time period.
The green group is currently trying to sell another 58,000 acres of central Adirondack land to the state. It's part of a larger 150,000 acre tract the organization bought from Finch-Pruyn Paper for $110 million in 2007.
Last year, the conservancy sold 92,000 acres to the Danish pension fund ATP Timberland Invest.
In a recent interview, Nature Conservancy Executive Director Mike Carr and spokeswoman Connie Prickett said there's often a markup associated to a land sale to the state. But they stressed the additional costs reflect not only rising property values, but also the time and money the organization invests in the land prior to the sale.
"We have to get in and out of a project whole, but that's not a profit," Carr said.
"We do leave millions of dollars in these projects," Prickett added.
Although the scope of the current investigation is limited to the single transaction, local officials have decried the conservancy's markup policy for years.
Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Executive Director Fred Monroe said it appears state officials pay the extra amount to gain the favor of powerful environmentalists.
"I believe there is a close relationship between the Nature Conservancy and the DEC. They were paid their carrying costs for the time they held the property for the state," Monroe said. "It always seemed improper that the Conservancy was acting as a purchasing agent for the state and having all of their costs covered. That's not an arms-length deal."
Last month, local officials panned pleas from environmentalists to forgo their opposition to state land acquisition.