ALBANY – When Joseph Percoco used to call a lawmaker or political operative or lobbyist, those picking up the phone on the other end assumed that they were basically speaking with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
It was hardly a stretch to give such deference to Percoco, who since the 1990s was in the innermost of Cuomo’s very small inner circle of advisers. In Percoco, Cuomo had a reliable and, he obviously thought, trustworthy aide to handle all things big and small.
“It wasn’t a job for him. It was family,” one Cuomo loyalist said earlier this year of Percoco’s connections to Cuomo.
Cuomo spoke pointedly Friday about his deep disappointment and hurt after Percoco was charged with participating in pay-to-play schemes in Orange County and in Central New York.
“It’s the first time since we lost my father that I don’t miss him being here because it would have broken his heart,” Cuomo said in Buffalo, referring to the death of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo on Jan. 1, 2015.
Percoco, 46, began serving the Cuomo family as an intern for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1992. He later went to work for Andrew Cuomo, first at the U.S. Department of Housing and Development and later when Andrew Cuomo became New York attorney general and then governor.
In their complaint against Percoco last week, federal prosecutors called him “a primary gatekeeper” for people getting access to Andrew Cuomo. They said he was “an almost constant presence” with Cuomo at official duties and that he had a “very close, personal relationship” with the governor.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Rockland County, Percoco lived on Staten Island until he moved to an expensive home in Westchester County, not far from where Andrew Cuomo lives with his girlfriend, Food Network personality Sandra Lee. It was a move, as it turned out, that came with expenses Percoco, on his state salary, ultimately found financially troubling.
There were others on Cuomo’s staff who handled the most complex fiscal and policy matters. For Percoco, Cuomo was his portfolio. After Cuomo’s political implosion in 2002, when he bowed out of a Democratic gubernatorial primary race against H. Carl McCall, it was Percoco who was among the tight circle of advisers to nurse him back to political health.
The image of Percoco as the enforcer is an unfair characterization of someone who learned how to coax favors, legislation, endorsements and chits using honey as often as a verbal baseball bat, his friends say. To understand Percoco’s power in state government, one has to understand Cuomo. He is a governor whose closest allies say has a limited number of people he counts as true friends or as individuals he trusts with his political fortunes. Percoco was at the top or one rung down in that Cuomo clique.
Percoco began working directly on a government payroll under Cuomo in 1999 when Cuomo was at HUD in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He had a broad job description when Cuomo went on to become New York attorney general in 2007 and then easily made a transition with several other Cuomo confidants from that office to the executive chamber after Cuomo was elected in 2010.
Lawmakers saw that Cuomo allies, or ones that he liked to court, would typically turn to Percoco as both the door-opener and trouble-fixer for help with problems in their districts, or with some state agency, or to woo Cuomo’s support for one of their bills.
When then-Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, needed some calming down over stuntman Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk over Niagara Falls, it was Percoco who was on the phone a half-dozen times one night in 2012. Percoco has prodded lawmakers on everything from Cuomo’s 2011 push to legalize same-sex marriages to this past spring’s budget deliberations – just weeks before the FBI raided Percoco’s home. The raid was part of Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s expanded probe that as what first began as a investigation into the awarding of contracts for the Buffalo Billion.
Percoco was happy to join Cuomo in dealings with other state officials or private-sector executives as the two men alternated between playing good cop/bad cop roles to advance Cuomo’s agenda. “Joe is the guy putting out fires and advancing the agenda of the governor. When you are getting close to the top of an issue, it’s Joe Percoco you are sitting with,” Sen. Andrew J. Lanza, R-Staten Island, told The Buffalo News for a 2012 profile of Percoco. “He has to make the governor’s position known, and if he does it forcefully every so often, he does it forcefully.”
Percoco also served Cuomo in a sort of team manager role, keeping an eye on administration appointees and prodding staff members to do more for Cuomo. When a staffer wanted to leave the team before Cuomo wanted him or her to leave, it was Percoco’s task to block, or delay, an exit. One state official told of a call from Percoco to a Cuomo staff member, calling that person “disloyal” for even thinking about trying to get a different government job. Percoco played that role even after he left Cuomo’s payroll last January to join Madison Square Garden Co., the state official said.
Few people know more about and have done more for Cuomo than Percoco, a St. John’s University Law School graduate. In The News’ 2012 profile, one lawmaker said of Percoco: “Some of his people say, ‘This is what I’ve got to do, I don’t really want to do it, but the governor is making me do it.’ Never does that happen with Joe. He is the true representative of the governor’s position.’’
When he left Cuomo’s side, or at least his side while in a job paid for by taxpayers, Percoco had the title of executive deputy secretary. Percoco was making $169,000 a year in his state job. Besides the money he made as a consultant when he temporarily left his state job in 2014 to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign – a move that caught the attention of federal investigators – Cuomo supplemented Percoco’s salary with campaign-funded bonuses. Between 2010 and 2015, Percoco was paid $349,000 in wages and bonuses while doing campaign work for Cuomo. Percoco also managed Cuomo’s successful 2006 campaign for attorney general.
Percoco joined Mario Cuomo’s staff as an advance man in 1991 after graduating from Wagner College. A 2010 New York Observer article said it was Todd Howe, a former Washington lobbyist and longtime Cuomo insider who also was charged by federal prosecutors, who hired Percoco for the job with Mario Cuomo.
At Mario Cuomo’s funeral, Andrew Cuomo referred to Percoco as “my father’s third son, who sometimes I think he loved the most.”