NEW YORK – Prosecution and defense lawyers squared off Tuesday in the corruption trial of Joseph Percoco and three others in opening arguments of a trial that packed the courtroom and an overflow room with interested spectators.
The sole point the two lawyers could agree on: Percoco was the right-hand man for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
From there, they diverged.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Boone took jurors through the federal government’s case against Percoco, which centers on what Boone said was more than $300,000 in bribe money paid to Percoco in return for using his top post in the Cuomo administration to financially benefit two private firms.
“This case is about corruption – the old-fashioned kind,’’ Boone told the jury at the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan. He described it as simply a high-ranking official taking money from wealthy individuals for government favors.
Besides Percoco, three executives from two companies – a firm that was advancing an Orange County power plant and a major Syracuse developer with big state contracts under the Cuomo administration – also are charged in the alleged bribery scheme.
The business executives made the alleged bribes, Boone said, “because of greed, pure and simple.’’
The allegations include nearly $300,000 in payments to Percoco’s wife via a newly created job with the energy company that Boone said paid her $90,000 a year for teaching fourth-graders about energy issues for two hours six times a year.
The prosecutor also described Percoco’s ties to the Cuomo family – noting his start a couple of decades ago as an intern with the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s administration and his ascent to become one of the most recognized members of Andrew Cuomo’s government and campaign teams. Among government officials, Percoco was a fearsome force.
“Getting a call from Percoco was like getting a call from the governor himself,’’ Boone told jurors as he outlined the alleged government favors – aid for the power company’s project and undoing a state agency determination over union labor rules on a state-funded project in Syracuse.
Barry Bohrer, the first of four defense lawyers with opening arguments on behalf of the four men all being tried together in the four- to six-week trial, called the case against Percoco “a mistaken prosecution.’’
Bohrer recounted Percoco’s long service with both Cuomo governors, noting how then-23-year-old Percoco traveled in 1993 with Mario Cuomo to attend a White House dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton. The gathering, which also included Texas Gov. Ann Richards, was held to honor that day’s Super Bowl game between the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys.
Bohrer said Percoco “made mistakes,’’ but “not the kind of mistakes that will brand him a criminal for the rest of his life.’’
“Our defense is the truth,’’ he told jurors.
Both the prosecutor and Percoco's defense lawyer spent considerable time talking about Todd Howe, the government’s star witness against Percoco and the others.
Howe, who first hired Percoco in the Mario Cuomo administration, is a longtime associate of Andrew Cuomo. He is characterized as the conduit between the two private companies – he represented both firms during the alleged illegal acts – in arranging what prosecutors say were alleged bribes paid to Percoco. Howe was a lobbyist at the time for an Albany-based firm.
At the time of the indictments against Percoco and the others, prosecutors announced Howe pleaded to eight felony counts, some connected to the Percoco case, and that he has been cooperating in their probe for about two years.
He is expected to be their chief witness against Percoco, a onetime close friend.
“We’re not asking you to like Todd Howe,’’ Boone told jurors, acknowledging Howe has lied to his employer, the IRS and others. “Howe is a criminal,’’ he added.
Bohrer went further, calling him “Todd Ransom Howe." He labeled Howe a “walking breach of contract,’’ a “maestro of evasion” and a “pathological liar, a repeat embezzler.’’ He said Howe’s only interest in the case was turning into a cooperating witness for prosecutors in order to lessen the penalties for his criminal offenses.
Bohrer said it was Howe who used Percoco to try to advance himself financially with his clients. Further, he said the payments made to Percoco and his wife were disclosed, that Percoco got clearance from a Cuomo administration ethics lawyer for the work, and that the payments were made in 2014 when Percoco was off the state payroll and was not a public official.
Percoco spent much of that year running Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
In the overflow courtroom, Richard Morvillo, Howe's lawyer, who watched the day's proceedings, declined comment. It is uncertain when Howe will testify.
The Percoco lawyer, Bohrer, sought to personalize Percoco, known for years in Albany as Cuomo’s fix-it man and enforcer with players both inside and outside government. He talked of Percoco helping his “mama” in her Staten Island bakery shop and of caring for her before she died. He talked of Percoco holding down a day job while getting his St. John's University law degree. And he talked of how Percoco had been a “loyal friend and counselor” to Andrew Cuomo when he was getting his divorce years ago from Kerry Kennedy and then helped Cuomo rebuild his political career after a disastrous first run for governor in 2002.
The power Percoco had with Cuomo turned the payments Percoco received in 2014 into alleged bribes because of the quid quo pro scheme it turned into, prosecutors allege.
“His power never left,’’ Boone said of Percoco’s influence with state officials and agencies during the time the Cuomo confidante temporarily left the state payroll in 2014.
Defense lawyers for the other three defendants – Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., a former executive with Competitive Power Ventures; and Steven Aiello and Joseph Giaradi, founders of Syracuse-area firm Cor Development – continued their opening statements Tuesday afternoon.
The first witness called by prosecutors was Mollie Brewster, a forensic accountant in the FBI’s Buffalo Field Office.
Brewster, who investigated the Percoco family finances, went through with one of the prosecutors a series of documents depicting rising expenses for Percoco and his wife in 2012, the year they moved from a modest home on Staten Island to a large house in an upscale Westchester County community not far from where Cuomo lives with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee. The new $815,000 home Percoco bought was financed with a $800,000 mortgage; Percoco at the time was making about $155,000 and his wife had left her job as a New York City schoolteacher.
Prosecutors have alleged Percoco and his wife were living above their means and that he turned to an alleged bribery scheme to help bring in more money.
But Michael Yaeger, one of Percoco’s lawyers, sought to turn what might have been otherwise pro forma testimony by Brewster into a different portrait of Percoco's finances.
In a line of questioning that won’t end until Wednesday, Yaeger noted how prosecutors focused on Percoco's income and expenses, but left out of their presentation a depiction of Percoco’s bank account balances. Those, he said, showed a couple with healthy savings accounts in 2012, including a balance in one account totaling over $63,000 just prior to Lisa Percoco taking a job connected to the energy company. They had other money that had also come in following the death of his mother.
Defense lawyers sought to show an upbeat mood after the line of questioning, though Percoco's lawyer declined comment.
On Wednesday, the questioning of Brewster will continue.
Prosecutors then will call Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s chief of staff and counselor, followed by James Fayle, the central New York regional director for Empire State Development, the state's main economic development agency.