ALBANY – There have been two very different possibilities when it comes to the connections between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Todd R. Howe.
The first: Cuomo knows Howe, but it would be wrong to call Howe a close adviser.
The second: Howe is one of those off-the-payroll people whom Cuomo relies on to get things done on his behalf.
People close to Cuomo insist that the first scenario is the reality.
And, illustrating just how twisted this episode in state government has become, people who are close to Cuomo insist that the second scenario is the truth.
After word surfaced in late April of Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s expanding probe of the Cuomo administration, the governor distanced himself from Howe, even though Howe had served him in Washington during his days in the administration of President Bill Clinton. “I wouldn’t call us close friends. He worked for the state for a number of years, but I had no knowledge of his personal situation,” Cuomo said of Howe in early May.
Now, Howe, 56, is a central figure in the federal prosecutor’s case that several pay-to-play schemes operated across the state. He is the only one of nine men accused of participating in the schemes who has pleaded guilty. And the complaint filed last week shows that he is telling prosecutors how the schemes worked.
Howe isn’t just some former state bureaucrat. He was among the staff members who spent as much time as anyone around the governor’s father, the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, serving as his advance person and traveling aide. That is when he first got to know Andrew Cuomo, who was his father’s campaign manager, and Andrew later hired Howe when he went to work in the Clinton administration at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Since Andrew Cuomo became governor in 2011, Howe has continued helping him, assisting in campaign events and promoting the governor’s agenda in the Buffalo Billion and other upstate economic-development programs.
One state official involved in that effort believes that among Howe’s tasks for the governor was keeping an eye on Alain E. Kaloyeros, who headed SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Cuomo chose Kaloyeros as a coordinator for the Buffalo Billion project, including the SolarCity solar panel factory at RiverBend in South Buffalo, along with other upstate projects.
The Cuomo administration Tuesday night called claims of Howe's influence "ridiculous.''
"I've spent nearly every day of the last three and a half years with the governor and I've never heard him talk to Todd Howe or about Todd Howe. If he is in the inner circle, I don't know whose inner circle it is,'' said Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo's chief of staff.
The attempt to distance the Cuomo administration from Howe began soon after Bharara’s office served the Governor’s Office with a subpoena in late April, demanding information about a wide range of individuals, state officials and private companies.
But Howe had access to top Cuomo administration officials, did work for the governor’s campaigns and even had an office space at SUNY Polytechnic’s campus in Albany, which was raided by investigators for State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a separate investigation into a scuttled real estate deal by the public college.
While Cuomo insiders disagree on the level of closeness between Cuomo and Howe, federal prosecutors, in a complaint unsealed last week, noted the various ties to Cuomo and Joseph Percoco, the governor’s longtime adviser who was arrested last week as part of the scandal.
And Howe first hired Percoco as an intern in Mario Cuomo’s administration, prosecutors said.
Howe, a resident of Washington, D.C., who had been a lobbyist before the scandal broke last spring, was retained by various clients for whom he “provided assistance with lobbying or facilitating business before the state,” court papers say.
Most significantly, the papers show, Howe’s clients included the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany for tasks including work on the Buffalo Billion project at RiverBend. The prosecution papers say he served as the college’s “primary liaison to the governor and the governor’s senior staff.”
In one of the more bizarre stories to emerge since Howe became linked to the federal investigation, the New York Post in May reported that Howe served as the hand model for an official portrait of Mario Cuomo. The late governor refused to sit to have his portrait drawn, so Andrew Cuomo got an artist to work off a 1989 photograph of his father. When the artist needed a hand model for the painting, Howe was called into duty.
Howe worked for Mario Cuomo from 1984 until the governor was defeated in 1994 in his bid for a fourth term. Howe’s job, multilayered at times like those of other close confidants, included traveling with the governor across the state and on his many out-of-state speaking tours.
Howe was aboard a state airplane with Mario Cuomo in 1988 that was forced to make an emergency landing in Pennsylvania after an electrical problem filled the cabin with smoke.
In December 1991, when Cuomo was considering a presidential bid, Howe who arranged for two private planes to be sent to the Albany airport to take Cuomo, aides and reporters to New Hampshire. Cuomo never took that trip, as Cuomo decided against running for president.
Howe then followed Andrew Cuomo to Washington when Cuomo was tapped for a job at HUD, the federal agency that he eventually headed as federal housing secretary. With Howe was Percoco, another fiercely loyal Cuomo family confidant.
After HUD, Howe did work in Washington with Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich.
And in 2002, he was hired by the large Albany law and lobbying firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna to head its Washington subsidiary, WOH Government Solutions. The firm fired Howe this spring after the federal investigation was revealed.
But the lobbying and law firm was retained by a number of private companies, including Buffalo’s LPCiminelli and Syracuse’s COR Development, two of the companies federal prosecutors implicated in the alleged pay-to-play schemes.
Howe also worked as a consultant for SUNY Polytechnic, which was in charge of the SolarCity project at RiverBend, as well as other development projects in other upstate cities. Federal prosecutors said that he was paid $25,000 a month since 2012 in that role.
Before being fired, Howe was in regular contact with SUNY Polytechnic’s Kaloyeros, who was tight with the Cuomo administration but never considered one of the governor’s true insiders, at least not at the level of Percoco or Howe.
Howe’s personal financial dealings were described as “chaotic and slipshod” in a New York Times article in May. Despite owning a large home in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington and sending children to New England boarding schools, the Times reported, Howe filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003, had at one point $400,000 in federal tax liens and, in 2009, pleaded guilty to making a false bank deposit of $45,000.
Howe, who grew up in Troy, had a brief stint at the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington after leaving HUD when Andrew Cuomo left office.