NEW YORK – A couple hours after sunrise on one morning in April 2016, Linda Lacewell’s phone rang.
Lacewell, a trusted advisor to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was reached that morning by Joseph Percoco, an even closer associate of Cuomo – dating back to the days when his father, Mario M. Cuomo, was governor.
Percoco, on trial this week in Manhattan on corruption charges, had dire news: federal agents had just raided his home, seizing various documents in search of alleged moneymaking dealings by Percoco.
Among the items taken was Percoco’s laptop which – depicting a level of trust Cuomo had in Percoco – contained an array of family and financial information about the governor, including Cuomo’s tax filings, Lacewell said.
Moments later, Lacewell conferenced Cuomo in to the call with her and Percoco, as they listened to what was going on that day with someone who for years had arguably been Cuomo’s closest adviser.
That story was among the details to emerge Wednesday during several hours of court testimony by Lacewell, who today is Cuomo’s chief of staff and counselor and, as she noted, Cuomo’s “minister of defense,’’ using a nickname she has.
In the phone call that day in 2016, Percoco talked about a job his wife had gotten with an energy company – a post prosecutors have called a job in return for nearly $300,000 in what they allege amounted to alleged bribe payments to Percoco, allegedly in return for official government favors.
Percoco, Lacewell said, described how his wife was getting paid through a consultant with the firm, or as Lacewell recalled Percoco said, a “money man.’’
Then, Percoco told them about money he allegedly got from two Syracuse-area entities, including one whose two top executives are on trial with Percoco, during a period in 2014 when Percoco had left the state payroll – temporarily, as it turned out, to run Cuomo’s gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Percoco assured Cuomo and Lacewell that his arrangements “had nothing to do with state contracts," Lacewell said in court.
He said they had been “all cleared by the lawyers,’’ Lacewell said, later saying that some lawyer in Cuomo’s counsel office – she did not know who – cleared Percoco to take the positions after he left state service.
Percoco said the Syracuse company, Cor Development, didn’t want to pay him directly, so Todd Howe, a lobbyist and friend of Percoco and longtime Cuomo associate, paid him indirectly through an entity Howe controlled, according to Lacewell.
“He’s cute that way,’’ Lacewell quoted Percoco, as saying of Howe.
Howe is the government’s chief witness against Percoco and three others in the trial.
“What?’’ Lacewell quoted Cuomo as saying that day on the phone with Percoco, as he described the alleged arrangements.
The much-anticipated testimony by Lacewell revealed more.
“He said he was never coming back,’’ Lacewell recalled Percoco telling her, when he left his state job in 2014.
But Cuomo didn’t fill Percoco’s position as executive deputy secretary – a job that saw Percoco handling everything from Cuomo’s official visits around the state, personnel matters, union and legislative relations, and serving as all-around administration linebacker charged with standing up to those who criticized Cuomo or his agenda.
A prosecutor had Lacewell explain bans on people after they leave government jobs.
Lacewell was asked by a prosecutor if she ever saw Percoco in Cuomo’s government suite of offices in midtown Manhattan after he left the state's payroll that April.
Yes, sometimes for two or three days straight, she said. Moreover, he made use of his old government office – located right near Cuomo’s office, Lacewell said.
Asked if anyone else had use of that office after Percoco left the payroll, Lacewell said: “No.”
Part of the prosecution’s case against Percoco is that he still wielded a presence in the Cuomo administration after leaving his job – part of the time during which they allege he took bribes.
A month after Cuomo was re-elected in 2014, Percoco rejoined the state in his old job.
Lacewell said Percoco told her that Cuomo needed him back “to have some stability” in his office.
Lacewell said Percoco directly oversaw 100 or so public employees, including “dozens and dozens” who would plan and manage Cuomo’s public events.
The court session Wednesday also saw the conclusion of some five hours of testimony by Mollie Brewster, a forensic accountant with the FBI Field Office in Buffalo, who examined the finances of Percoco and those allegedly involved in the alleged bribery scheme.
Prosecutors alleged Percoco turned to bribes as a way to pay for rising personal costs, driven in part by a move from a modest Staten Island neighborhood to a larger home in an upscale town in Westchester County near where Cuomo lives in the house of his girlfriend, Sandra Lee.
On Tuesday, defense lawyers said prosecutors have neglected to show that Percoco and his wife had been averaging some $60,000 or more in their savings account at the time Lisa Percoco landed her position.
On Wednesday, prosecutors pushed back.
Brewster, under questioning by a lawyer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, noted that in the middle of 2014 – after Percoco had temporarily left his government job – the family’s debt included $930,000 in mortgages, $57,000 in credit cards, about $12,000 in car loans and about $5,000 in student debt.
Though the trial is about Percoco -- and Cuomo has not been implicated in any of the alleged schemes -- the governor's name was invoked during a day of questions and answers in court a total of 37 times, according to court transcripts.
Within a minute of Lacewell taking the stand, prosecutors, seeking to put a face on who they were about to talk about with Lacewell, showed jurors a large image of Cuomo on a screen in the courtroom.