NEW YORK – A former government and campaign adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo testified Monday he participated in an alleged bribery scheme with one of Cuomo’s closest associates to help his private sector clients get favorable attention in the governor’s administration.
Todd Howe, a fixture in Cuomo’s life since the mid-1980s, said he funneled “ziti” – a code name they used for alleged bribes – to Joseph Percoco as part of an alleged plan to use Percoco’s influence with the Cuomo administration help a firm building a downstate energy plant and a Syracuse development company.
Howe said he helped steer alleged campaign donations to Cuomo’s campaign from the energy firm – $25,000 at one 2010 breakfast alone – and arranged to provide a jet paid for by the company for Cuomo’s use during the governor’s campaign that year.
The testimony by Howe, star witness for federal prosecutors against Percoco and three private sector executives accused of allegedly bribing him, could stretch on all week inside a Manhattan courtroom.
While Cuomo officials have sought to downplay Howe’s influence with Cuomo since the corruption matter broke in 2016, Howe, 57, described his time going back to the days of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s administration in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1997, he said, Andrew Cuomo, the federal housing secretary, called and asked him to join his staff – a post Howe said had him travel with Cuomo to nearly 50 states. He testified he shared an office with Percoco at Cuomo’s campaign headquarters in Manhattan in the last few months of the governor’s 2014 re-election race and that Howe for a time was “actively” fundraising for Cuomo.
Howe said he arranged a 2010 breakfast meeting with Cuomo and executives from Competitive Power Ventures, or CPV, the energy firm whose former executive, Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., is on trial with Percoco.
Prosecutors previously – and Howe Monday – said the corruption scheme involved Percoco allegedly helping the firm’s dealings with the Cuomo administration on a power plant matter at a time when the company hired Percoco’s wife.
Cuomo, Howe said, came away from the 2010 breakfast with a $25,000 donation from CPV. Howe said he was subsequently asked by Percoco – Cuomo’s top campaign adviser – to arrange a CPV-provided private jet for Cuomo’s use in the closing days of the 2010 campaign.
Howe’s testimony in the third week of the trial was at times plodding, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg introduced evidence for jurors.
Taken as a whole, the day revealed glimpses into an alleged corruption conspiracy that reached into the top levels of state government.
One piece of evidence: a photograph showing Howe with Percoco – holding a large fish – at Long Island’s Montauk Point following a 2010 fishing trip paid for by Kelly. The excursion was put together at Howe’s suggestion, he said, as a way of introducing Percoco to Kelly, allegedly at a time when the firm was trying to get its Orange County power plant development off the ground.
Percoco, Howe testified, would go on to become CPV’s biggest cheerleader in the Cuomo administration. By 2012, though, things went the other way, when Percoco, Howe said, reached out to him.
Howe said Percoco told him he was having “serious financial issues” in his personal life. Percoco and his family had just moved to an expensive home in Westchester County and Percoco’s wife, Lisa, was no longer bringing in an income as a New York City schoolteacher.
Howe said Percoco allegedly wanted Howe to arrange a consulting job for his wife with one of his clients. For Howe, it was a chance to help his friend, but to also keep an opportunity to continue a key connection with one of Cuomo’s most trusted advisers. Of Percoco, Howe said, he “certainly had the governor’s ear.”
Percoco had the title of deputy executive secretary, but Howe said Percoco was Cuomo’s “closest staff person.’’
Cuomo has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has said he was surprised by Percoco’s alleged bribe scheme.
The fall for Howe has been steep. He has pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, several pertaining directly to the Percoco case. Prosecutors had him outline a number of issues that defense lawyers will potentially be seizing on in coming days – including lying to his employer and prosecutors about his outside business dealings and his own personal financial issues.
Howe testified he has lost his career as a lobbyist and is now mowing grass and digging ditches as a groundskeeper at a golf course in Idaho. He called his participation in the Percoco matter “a huge mistake.’’
Howe said Percoco was as close as a brother.
“And he asked for help, and I did whatever I could to help him,’’ Howe testified of the alleged bribe money he said he helped arrange for Percoco.
Howe faces a maximum sentence of 135 years in prison, but he said he is hoping for leniency if, as he said, he tells the truth during his appearance this week and continues cooperating with prosecutors.
Prosecutors Monday focused heavily on the energy company dealings, but Howe said he acted as a middleman for an alleged $35,000 bribe from Syracuse developers Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi of Cor Development allegedly paid to Percoco. The top Cuomo aide helped the developers in a number of ways, Howe said.
After Cuomo first took office in 2011, Howe said he had regular dealings – “daily,” he called it – with Percoco or other top aides regarding issues clients were having in business dealings with the state. The CPV opportunity represented a way to personally benefit Percoco, Howe said. The initial in-person contact with Percoco and CPV’s Kelly was the 2010 fishing trip followed by a lunch at Wollensky’s Grill, a Manhattan restaurant with Percoco, Kelly and Howe.
By 2012, when Howe said Percoco was increasingly pressuring him to get his wife a job with CPV, the meetings between the three men shifted to an Italian restaurant, Della Francesca in Danbury, Conn. “I will keep an eye on your project,’’ Howe said Percoco told Kelly at the end of the meal, in reference to the firm’s bumpy regulatory road in Albany over its power plant project.
Later in the year, Howe and Kelly traveled to Percoco’s house for a dinner with him and his wife. Lisa Percoco was soon hired by CPV. Prosecutors said she made nearly $300,000 with the firm.