NEW YORK – If they hadn’t heard about it before, jurors in the Joseph Percoco trial received a briefing Tuesday of the much-criticized system by which state politicians fill their campaign accounts with donations from people with business before state government.
But, as U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni advised jurors before evidence about donations to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaign came up as an issue, there have been no suggestions that the money flow to Cuomo violated any state laws.
Still, the story told in court Tuesday by Todd Howe — a longtime Cuomo associate — may have been eye-opening to those unfamiliar with Albany.
Howe already testified his Washington-based lobbying duties began to soar in Albany when it became clear that Cuomo was going to be elected in 2010.
Howe goes back to the 1980s in his service to Cuomo and the governor’s late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo.
A few months into Cuomo’s first term, in 2011, Howe testified Tuesday he advised his clients at a Syracuse development firm of a need for them to become more “strategic” about “who you reward” with campaign donations. He said there were ways to “get the most leverage” by targeting donations to politicians who could help the firm and to withhold money from politicians who might try to stand in their way.
Howe told the executives, with Cor Development in Syracuse, how donations they made to Cuomo’s campaign could be what he termed “helpful” in building stronger relations with officials in the governor’s administration, he testified.
Over the next couple of years, Cor officials allegedly listened to Howe, the prosecution’s chief witness in the trial of Percoco, one of the governor’s close advisers.
Two Cor executives — along with a former vice president at an energy company — are on trial with Percoco over whether they engaged in an alleged bribery scheme in which payments allegedly flowed to Percoco and his wife in return for the former senior Cuomo adviser helping them.
Howe talked about being at a 2011 gathering for Cuomo with Cor officials at a New York City hotel, and he recalled telling Cuomo at the event that Steven Aiello, the Cor co-founder, could be helpful in Cuomo’s work on rebuilding the economy of central New York.
It turned out that one of the Cor executives – not part of the corruption case — at that Manhattan gathering shared something in common with Cuomo: a love of old Corvettes.
In June 2013, with Cuomo gearing up for a re-election run, the governor went to Syracuse for another gathering of Cor executives, for a fundraiser. On the schedule: a tour for Cuomo of the one Cor executive’s private Corvette collection.
Cuomo would leave that night with five checks totaling $125,000, Howe said.
Cor made the donations by taking advantage of state campaign finance laws that permit what critics say are end-runs around corporate donation limits through the use of limited liability companies.
Howe said Cor had 35 separate LLCs associated with its development business that stretched at the time from Buffalo to Albany. It chose five of them to give $25,000 apiece to Cuomo.
Howe said Cor was careful not to have any of the LLCs that gave to Cuomo contain the name Cor in their titles. By 2013, Cor was heavily involved in a state-funded development deal in Syracuse. The optics would not look good, Howe testified, saying he “didn’t want the press to look at contribution list (and later) and see Cor” in the list of donors giving $125,000 to Cuomo.
A year later, in 2014, Howe testified that it was Aiello who came up with the payment system allegedly used to bribe Percoco.
Howe’s questioning by federal prosecutors will enter a third day Wednesday.
He also will be grilled by lawyers representing each of the four defendants – and they have already promised to prod Howe on his credibility and character.
Howe pleaded guilty in 2016 for his role in the Percoco alleged bribery scheme. This week, Howe detailed how he allegedly steered money from two entities – Cor and a former executive with an energy company. In all, Percoco is accused of allegedly taking more than $300,000.
For much of 2014, Percoco left Cuomo’s government payroll to run his gubernatorial re-election campaign. Howe testified that Percoco approached him looking for consulting deals in 2014 because Percoco was having financial troubles. Howe said Percoco believed he could be hooked up with several of Howe’s clients, including Buffalo’s LPCiminelli. That deal with the Buffalo general contracting firm did not materialize, Howe said.
Three former LPCiminelli executives are due to go on trial in June – before Caproni – in an alleged pay-to-play scandal involving the Buffalo Billion program and others upstate in which Howe will also be a witness for prosecutors.
In court, Tuesday was ziti day.
Ziti is the term Percoco allegedly devised, Howe said, to describe alleged bribe payments Howe arranged for him. It was used Tuesday in various ways, like emails that said the two had to “keep the ziti flowing” and an email from Howe saying that Percoco “need(s) 7,500 boxes of ziti;’’ that was a reference to $7,500 Percoco allegedly wanted, Howe said, as a monthly payment to Percoco’s wife from the energy company. When the first of those payments came, Howe wrote to Percoco to tell him the “ziti gets cleared” in December 2012. “Merry Christmas,’’ Howe wrote in an email to Percoco, he testified.
Another Howe email to Percoco worried about a halt in alleged bribe payments from the energy company executive; Howe called it time for “operation ziti replenishment.’’
Howe, wearing a dark blue suit, testified through the day of Percoco’s work to help his clients, who later paid him the alleged bribes. After one bit of help from Percoco on an energy matter, Percoco wrote to Howe: “Now do your part,’’ Howe said, reading from the email. Howe said that described Percoco’s desire to get money flowing to him from the Syracuse developers – which allegedly would total $35,000 in 2014.
Howe described the influence Percoco had with Andrew Cuomo.
“Joe took care of many issues that affected the governor,’’ Howe said. One way, he said, was “enforcing what the governor wanted” related to administration officials trying to leave Cuomo’s office for jobs elsewhere.
Percoco, Howe said, intervened and blocked several people trying to quit Cuomo’s office.