ALBANY – Joseph Percoco, a longtime confidante and aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and others go on trial Monday in a lower Manhattan courtroom, where a jury will consider whether state decision-making was driven by bribes of a top Cuomo official.
Cuomo won’t be on trial and he has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, but in the end, people statewide will be watching to get a glimpse of how Cuomo and his administration operate.
One state government watchdog said the case will reveal the “unsavory underbelly of how Albany operates.”
“They’re going to illustrate Albany’s pay-to-play culture, and it’s not going to be pretty for New Yorkers to see,’’ said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Assemblyman Ray Walter, an Amherst Republican, takes it a step further.
“I think we’re going to see the inner workings of the Cuomo administration and how the economic development model he’s developed as governor leads to this type of corruption," he said.
The singular question at the state Capitol: Will there be any impact from the trial on the governor in a year when he’s planning to run for a third term and is also trying to angle himself for a potential White House run in 2020?
From the massive amount of paperwork already filed in the case, it is clear that prosecutors are going to take jurors on a lengthy walk through the gritty side of how state government in Albany works. Prosecutors will offer glimpses into an administration known for tight circles and opaque ways. And the trial could last as long as six weeks.
Prosecutors are expected to show how some in government make decisions not always based on merit and how campaign contributions can provide an entry for some donors to the highest reaches of government.
“The press, lobbyists, legislators, everyone is going to be looking every day to see what’s going on,’’ said one Democratic insider in Albany. “Even for folks who consider themselves real insiders this will show how the governor’s office works.’’
The trial starting Monday is the first of six corruption-related cases in the coming six months. The others are the case involving alleged election law violations by former Newfane Republican Sen. George Maziarz in March; the re-trials in April and May of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos; the Buffalo Billion corruption case trial set for June; and, on Long Island, the corruption trial of former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano in March. Whether former Erie County Democratic operative Steve Pigeon’s corruption case goes to trial this year is still uncertain.
Cuomo employed both Percoco and the prosecution’s star witness against Percoco. Both has been questioned by the U.S. Attorney’s office. Cuomo said he does not expect to testify, though that remains to be seen.
Cuomo’s office would not comment on the trial.
Steven Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who has worked under Cuomo in the attorney general’s and governor’s office, dismissed speculation that Cuomo could be harmed by the trial.
“I don’t see it posing any kind of political risk for the governor. Most of us know what is going to come out of that trial, and it doesn’t relate to the governor in any direct or meaningful way,’’ said Cohen, a lawyer in Manhattan.
The government’s case
The case to be heard starting Monda is fairly simple at its heart: Was Percoco rewarded financially for using the power of his job to help executives who bribed him?
Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., is accused of creating a “low-show” consulting job for Percoco’s wife that ended up paying her more than $287,000 from 2012 to 2016. Prosecutors say the payments were a bribe because Percoco, at the same time, was using his top position with Cuomo to assist Kelly’s firm, Competitive Power Ventures, weave its way through the state bureaucracy to build a power plant in the lower Hudson Valley.
The indictment states that Percoco used “repeated pressure” on Kelly to arrange the financial deal with his wife in which payments were driven to her though another company consultant.
Two Syracuse-area developers – Cor Development’s Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi – are accused of paying Percoco $35,000 in exchange for help Percoco gave them on various state matters, including getting reversed a “costly arrangement” involving union labor on a Syracuse project and state money for a $15 million film studio outside Syracuse that ended up being a flop.
Todd Howe, a longtime Cuomo adviser, helped with all these schemes was, prosecutors say. He worked for Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father, in 1984. And in 1991, he hired Percoco while Percoco was still in college.
Howe went on to help Andrew Cuomo with various political tasks and was a senior staff member when Cuomo served as housing secretary under President Bill Clinton. Howe was lobbying in Washington at the time of the investigation for Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, a major Albany legal and lobbying firm.
Prosecutors flipped Howe, who has been cooperating with the probe for a couple years. He has already pleaded guilty to eight felonies for his role in the various schemes, which prosecutors said involved the Buffalo Billion case to be heard later this year and arranging the bribes to Percoco through two of his clients: the downstate energy firm and the Syracuse development company.
Lawyers for the defendants deny the charges and have been seeking to toss the case on a number of grounds over the past year, including court decisions in unrelated public corruption cases.
Defense lawyers have sought a variety of ways to protect the interests of their clients.
Percoco’s lawyers have argued that the consultant payments were tied to the downstate energy firm compensating his wife's legitimate work to develop a curriculum and teaching grade school students about energy as part of the firm's public relations effort.
As for the payments that came from the Syracuse developers, defense lawyer Barry Bohrer has said in legal filings that the money came during a period when he was not a state employee. They came between April 21 and December 8, 2014, when Percoco left his state job to take over as Cuomo’s campaign re-election chairman – “and therefore had no office to sell," Bohrer wrote in a court filing last year.
Percoco rejoined the Cuomo administraton office in December. He left a year later to take a job with Madison Square Garden Co.
Prosecutors, though, say evidence will show that Percoco was still a powerful force within the governor’s office during that period and that he exerted that influence to help those paying him by getting the Empire State Development agency to reverse a decision regarding use of union labor that greatly benefited the Syracuse developer.
Bohrer has countered that prosecutors allege Percoco was “able” to influence one beneficial decision while he was off the state payroll. That does not meet the legal standard that states he had to be “authorized to act," Bohrer wrote in a filing.
High stakes at hand
Much will be at play in the Percoco trial.
Lawyers for Louis Ciminelli and other LP Ciminelli executives in the related but separate Buffalo Billion trial later this year are expected to attending some of the court sessions in the Percoco case. The same judge is presiding over both cases, and the Ciminelli defense lawyer want to see how Caproni handles a public corruption case, according to a source involved in the Buffalo Billion case who spoke on condition of anonymity.
These defense lawyers also want to see what happens with Howe, the star witness who has been helping prosecutors with both trials, the source said. They want to hear directly what Howe has to say and also how much defense lawyers in the first trial are able to attack his credibility and character.
People in both major political parties keep coming back to Cuomo, when discussing the Percoco trial. Percoco was among Cuomo's most trusted people in a very tight circle of advisers. At Mario Cuomo’s funeral in 2015, Andrew Cuomo described Percoco as “my father’s third son.’’
But Cuomo has said he had no knowledge of any of Percoco's private dealings when he was off the state payroll for part of 2014.
Since September 2016, when the corruption charges were brought, a key question in Albany has been how was such a close confidante to Cuomo able to engage in a scheme as alleged by prosecutors.
“It’s hard to imagine this doesn’t come back to the governor in some way. If it doesn’t, he’s the most aloof person in the universe," said Assemblyman Walter. "And he would never say that about himself. He says he’s hands-on, attention-to-detail micromanager. Well, you’re going to say you’re a micromanager, and yet none of that happened under your purview? None of it makes sense."
One certainty: The barrage of corruption trials over the coming months will propel another round of we’ve-got-to-clean-Albany talk. For his part, Horner said NYPIRG and others would like to see more open and independent process for state contracting, campaign donation limits on those seeking or with state contracts and a new, independent ethics watchdog agency.
“Going into the election will either be a small problem or a big problem, depending on the proceedings themselves,’’ Horner said a few days before the start of the Percoco trial. “But it’s not good news for the governor, no matter what happens. He ran in 2010 saying he was going to clean up Albany and it’s fair to say that’s a promise not fulfilled.’’