ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo defended himself and his administration against what he termed “political garbage” attacks in the wake of Tuesday’s felony corruption conviction of a close, former aide who has been a “brother” to the governor for the better part of three decades.
In his first comments on the bribery trial of Joseph Percoco, Cuomo on Wednesday – in a brief appearance in Manhattan with a small group of reporters – said federal prosecutors spent two years on its probe of Percoco and operations of Cuomo’s office.
“There was absolutely no suggestion ever made that I had anything to do with anything,’’ Cuomo said.
Cuomo said Percoco’s acts, for which he received three felony convictions and faces up to a 50-year prison sentence, were “a violation of everything my administration stands for.’’
“We strive for total integrity,’’ Cuomo said.
Still, questions linger.
The trial of Percoco and three former business executives – one was convicted, one exonerated and one saw a deadlocked jury on his charges and was declared a mistrial – revealed what critics say was a pay-to-play atmosphere in which big donors to Cuomo were given special access at times they had major business dealings before state agencies and Cuomo’s office.
But there were more embarrassing and politically troublesome episodes and insights into the operations of the Cuomo administration, which came into office in 2011 promising a new high ethical era in Albany.
Here are some questions posed to the Cuomo administration Wednesday.
What did the governor know about Percoco’s use, when he was a private citizen, of his former government office in Manhattan, steps away from Cuomo’s own office?
The trial revealed Percoco left his state job in the spring of 2014 to head Cuomo’s re-election effort. But he was able to keep his state-issued building swipe card and get free use of his former office on the 39th floor of a state-rented space at 633 Third Ave. in Manhattan. For state workers leaving the payroll, swipe cards, computers and other items are immediately given back upon their departure.
Percoco in 2014 used the taxpayer-funded space on 68 days between the time he left his state job and then returned to his former government post after Cuomo was re-elected that fall. Who approved it? Unknown.
“When he left state government he would come back into the office to handle transition matters,’’ Cuomo said Wednesday, noting Percoco was with him a long time and did important work. “I believe he was doing transition work,’’ Cuomo said.
Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said Wednesday Percoco during the campaign helped "transition" Cuomo staffers to assume his former job duties and, after Cuomo was re-elected, used the office to transition back to his former job with Cuomo that he resumed in December 2014.
If Percoco used state resources on Cuomo’s campaign activities, that would be a violation of state law. “There should be no other work done from a government office except that transition work and in the trial there was a suggestion that there was and that’s a violation of rules,’’ Cuomo said.
Azzopardi said Cuomo and Percoco did not use the state office to conduct campaign work.
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican expected to announce his run for governor in early April, said there needs to be a state investigation into Percoco’s use of his government office. He noted Cuomo’s staff testified Percoco was in the office suite at the same time as Cuomo was present.
“The broader question is at what point does one acknowledge that this culture of corruption is so pervasive that this activity didn’t raise an eyebrow despite it was occurring with eyeshot and earshot of the governor?’’ Molinaro said.
Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican who has already announced a GOP run for governor, called Cuomo’s explanation of Percoco’s office use “preposterous” and “an insult to the intelligence of New Yorkers.’’
Did the governor know that Syracuse developer Steven Aiello used New York’s loophole-ridden election system to bundle $125,000 together in donations to Cuomo via five separate limited liability companies?
Cuomo has been a critic of the LLC loophole that allows donors to get around limits on corporate political giving in New York. But he has been a regular recipient of such LLCs in a war chest that exceeds $30 million.
Aiello was convicted Tuesday of one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, though not a bribery charge. Prosecutors say he and another Cor Development executive, who was cleared of all charges Tuesday, engaged in a bribery scheme with Percoco. The donations from the Syracuse LLCs to Cuomo came at a time when the firm’s business with the state was growing sharply.
Azzopardi said Cuomo did not know about the specifics of Aiello's LLC donations, adding that Cuomo's campaign handles such details.
Did the governor know specifically how Percoco was making money when he left state service and while serving as his 2014 campaign chairman? If not, why?
Cuomo in 2016 said Percoco told him something about consulting work he was doing in 2014, but he didn’t press for details and that the “onus” was on Percoco to follow state ethics law governing post-state employment. Azzopardi Wednesday night referred to those past answers.
Todd Howe is a former lobbyist who was the prosecution’s star witness in the Percoco trial, though he was arrested after he admitted on the witness stand that he may have violated the terms of his cooperation deal. Howe made claims that he was on a first name basis with Cuomo, that he did campaign work for Cuomo, raised money for Cuomo and worked at a desk with Percoco in Cuomo’s 2014 re-election office.
Howe’s connections to Cuomo and his family go back to the 1980s. When the scandal erupted a couple years ago, Cuomo officials sought to suggest that Howe was not a Cuomo insider. “Todd who?’’ became the joke in Albany.
On Wednesday, the administration was asked when Cuomo last directly communicated with Howe and to characterize the claims that came out by Howe and others about Howe’s ties with the governor. Azzopardi said Howe worked with Cuomo at the federal housing agency in the 1990s and volunteered on his campaign but that those matters were handled by staff members. "With rare exception, he hasn't had contact with Todd Howe for years. Todd Howe himself admitted to overstating his relationship with the Cuomo family – both verbally and in writing,'' Azzopardi said. He added that Cuomo has not communicated with Percoco since the day Percoco's house was raided by the FBI in April 2016.
Did Percoco or Howe ever communicate directly with the governor about any issues pertaining to Competitive Power Ventures or Cor Development, the two firms that were front and center in the Percoco bribery trial?
A number of top Cuomo aides had communications directly with Percoco or Howe on a number of matters the two firms had pending before Cuomo's office or state agencies. It remains unclear what level Cuomo himself got involved in resolving issues involving everything from a downstate power plant to a Syracuse real estate project.
Why were some top officials in Cuomo’s office permitted to conduct state business using their personal email accounts?
The Cuomo administration has in the past denied any such things occurred, but evidence at the trial showed extensive use of private emails by some Cuomo advisers. The problem? It helps them evade email production requested by the public or media via the Freedom of Information Law.
"The administration's position is that government email should be used for government business and government email should not be used for non-government reasons. Any action that deviates from this is against administration policy,'' Azzopardi said.
Does Cuomo plan any new laws, regulations or executive orders to address revelations in the Percoco trial?
Cuomo Wednesday said the “strictest ethics reform” that could be taken is to ban outside income of officials, though he focused his comments on lawmakers. But Percoco did not have “outside income” while he was a state employee other than what prosecutors say were bribes.
Why was Percoco, as a private citizen, involving himself in 2014 in Cuomo personnel matters and trying to dissuade Cuomo staffers from leaving the Cuomo administration?
"He shouldn't have been,'' Azzopardi said, adding that Cuomo did not know that staffers trying to leave were told that Percoco or others might call their future employer to tell them to rescind any job offers.
Does the governor know who is paying Percoco's legal bill? If so, who? Has the governor, considering his long friendship with Percoco, personally contributed to Percoco's legal defense?
Percoco and his lawyer have declined to say how Percoco's legal expenses are being footed. Percoco earlier this year left his job at Madison Square Garden Co., and he had multiple lawyers from a Manhattan law firm each day at his side during the trial. Prosecutors during the trial made much of their claims that Percoco began taking bribes because of financial problems after he moved to a home costing nearly $900,000 in an upscale hamlet in Westchester County. Percoco's state salary at the time was $156,000.
Azzopardi said the governor does not know how Percoco is paying his lawyers and that Cuomo has not personally contributed to any kind of Percoco legal defense fund - if one exists.