NEW YORK – It's still an open question yet whether Joe Percoco engaged in a bribery scheme to steer money his way from executives who he helped with business pending before the Cuomo administration.
But as his corruption trial continues in a Manhattan courtroom, what has come into focus via emails, photographs and other evidence submitted by prosecutors, along with testimony from a string of well-placed witnesses, is a portrait of Percoco ruling with an iron fist and a sharp tongue from the highest perch of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Sometimes rude, seemingly unfazed by people who failed to adequately serve Cuomo, Percoco tapped into his personality and influence with a bottom line zeal: protect and promote Cuomo.
To Albany insiders, it’s not exactly a stunning revelation.
His case involves alleged bribes that the prosecution claims were steered to Percoco by executives with two companies – a downstate energy firm and a Syracuse real estate development company – allegedly in return for influence that Percoco wielded with government agencies in order to financially benefit the two firms.
Percoco’s official title had been executive deputy secretary to Cuomo. From the trial evidence and witness testimony so far, “Cuomo enforcer” might have been a more accurate job title.
A couple of years ago, a then-top state official told the Buffalo News about the story of a staff member who worked for Cuomo. The official, who told the story on the condition that his name and the staffer’s name was not used, described how the staffer was desperate to move on from the hectic world of the Capitol’s second floor where the mission is made clear to staffers: your life, day and night, is to serve Cuomo.
After a time, the staffer was offered a job – not in the lucrative private sector, but with another state government agency. The staffer got the nerve up to personally tell Cuomo of his plans. The source says Cuomo wished him well and thanked him for his service.
Five minutes later, Percoco called the staffer. “You (expletive) traitor. You’re not going anywhere,’’ Percoco snapped at him. The staffer remained on the job, at least for a time.
Similar stories have made the rounds at the Capitol for years. And it wasn’t just Percoco keeping people from leaving.
After two weeks of the Percoco trial, similar stories are coming out from people testifying under oath.
Last week, Andrew Kennedy offered his own tale for the court. A former deputy state operations director, Kennedy was asked about the time he considered leaving his job in June of 2014. He had been offered a job at the University at Albany, about a 10-minute drive from the Capitol. Cuomo’s re-election campaign at that point was in full swing and Percoco had left the payroll – to run Cuomo’s campaign – after telling people he would not be coming back to his job with the governor after the race was over.
Kennedy, long praised by people who do business in Albany as straight-shooting professional, wanted the new job. It didn’t happen. “Later that month, it was – I was encouraged to reconsider taking that position,’’ he told prosecutor Matthew Podolsky, an assistant United States Attorney.
Performing the role of encourager with Kennedy was Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s secretary, which is the highest staff level job in the office. In his testimony, Kennedy said Schwartz told him to stay because it was a busy time. If Kennedy didn’t agree to stay, Kennedy said Schwartz told him “the governor’s office would call the university and ask them to reconsider offering – providing me the job.’’ Such a call from an office ultimately responsible for how much state aid the SUNY campus received was no idle threat.
Percoco cleared people for getting jobs for the Second Floor, the spot in the Capitol building that houses the offices where dozens of Cuomo’s top staffers work. According to testimony, he took the responsibility of “retainer” with equal force.
Loyalty is key
Cuomo runs a busy office, where top aides are on call 24 hours a day. Loyalty to him is key. During a public meeting of his cabinet, Cuomo once joked – sort of – that he once didn’t bother staffers on major holidays like Christmas. Those days had ended, Cuomo said a couple of years ago during a public event.
When trusted aides left, it caused a problem for Cuomo. In turn, it caused a problem for Percoco, the point person assigned to keep a stable – if not always happy – staff environment.
“You got things done by having really good people working really hard on the projects that were on the governor’s agenda, right?’’ Barry Bohrer, Percoco’s lawyer, asked of Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s chief of staff. She was the prosecution’s second witness in the trial.
“Yes,’’ she said.
“So from your standpoint, when people left state government, people with whom you worked for a long period of time and could count on and trust, that made life harder, didn’t it?” he asked her.
“And there was, shall we say, a gravitational pull; you wanted to keep people if you could in senior positions for as long as possible, right?” he asked her. “Yes,’’ she said.
Another witness, Seth Agata, a former Cuomo counsel who now heads a state ethics agency, was asked how Percoco could prevent someone from leaving their job with Cuomo. “Phone call either to the individual asking them to stay or, perhaps, to an employer asking to hold off taking the individual on,’’ he said.
Prosecutors have been laying out a case of enormous strength held by one individual – Percoco. Assistant United States Attorney Robert Boone called him “one of the most powerful men in New York State government.’’
“For years, he was a top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo. And he had a very long and a very fancy title: executive deputy secretary to the governor," Boone said. "But he didn't really need a title, because everyone in state government knew who Joseph Percoco was: He was the governor's right-hand man. He influenced who met with the governor and who worked for the governor. And wherever the governor went, Percoco went. And you will learn that he decided to sell his power and betray the people of New York for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes."
Such “vast power,’’ as one prosecutor called it, enabled him to be position to help those who allegedly bribed him, according to prosecutors. That help included government advantages for a power company, relaxed labor union standards on a Syracuse parking garage project that saved the developers money in wages and, in a pay raise for one of the Syracuse developer’s sons who worked in Cuomo’s office, prosecutors allege.
“This is another stupid blunder. Another we had no idea. BS,’’ Percoco wrote in an email to a Cuomo personnel staffer about the failure to quickly get the son of Steven Aiello a pay hike. The increase then quickly went through.
Albany has a long tradition of immense power being given to the top aides for governors and legislative leaders. Some performed the nitty-gritty detail work of state government that governors neither had the time, or in some cases, ability to handle. In the Legislature, there have been aides to Senate majority leaders and Assembly speakers who could single-handedly kill a bill pushed by a rank-and-file lawmaker.
In Percoco’s case, his power came from the trust he earned with Cuomo and his family going back to the days of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration. Percoco – working influential labor forces, county party leaders and others – was among a select few in the inner circle who helped Cuomo restore his political fortunes in the Democratic Party after a disastrous first run for governor in 2002.
Just how trusted was Percoco? The trial early on revealed that Percoco’s laptop – seized by FBI investigators when his home was raided in 2016 – contained an array of personal family and financial details about Andrew Cuomo. And when Percoco traded up houses from a modest one on Staten Island to a large home in a tony enclave in Westchester County, it was Cuomo who would motorcycle over to see his longtime buddy.
There is perhaps no better example of Percoco’s access to Cuomo than the revelations about the use of his former government office. Percoco left the state payroll in April 2014 to go work as manager of Cuomo’s re-election campaign. He told people he wasn’t coming back to his state job after the campaign. But two things happened: His job was not filled and his Manhattan government office – steps from Cuomo’s – was kept vacant.
On the 39th floor of a midtown office building, Percoco, however, still kept showing up to his old government office. He used it dozens of times, prosecutors say. One government exhibit showed private citizen Percoco attending a gathering of top Cuomo officials, including the governor, military, law enforcement and transportation officials.
Percoco in December 2014 did return to Cuomo’s government payroll – in his old job and old office.
The governor’s public events, one witness testified, involves dozens of staff members to coordinate. In September 2015, a year after Percoco is accused of having taken bribe money from Cor Development executives in Syracuse, Cuomo was in Syracuse for a traveling “Capitol for a Day” series of events. There were photo ops, a meeting with his cabinet, and a tour of a historic hotel and a Budweiser brewery.
During the day, according to testimony, Kennedy got a call from Percoco. He was upset that Cuomo’s schedule that day did not include a stop at a project – funded partly with state money – run by Cor Development. He ordered Kennedy to make sure Cuomo didn’t leave Syracuse without making a stop by the site under construction at the time.
Kennedy and others scrambled to add the appearance, which can often take much planning to pull off a single stop by the governor and his entourage. Asked how long he had to pull the event together, Kennedy replied: “15 to 20 minutes.’’ Before the day ended, a government photographer snapped a shot of Cuomo with Cor’s Steven Aiello, one of four men on trial this week in the alleged Percoco bribe scheme.