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Talk about 'ziti' in Percoco trial rebutted by attacks on star witness

NEW YORK – In the end, prosecutors in the Joseph Percoco trial wanted to talk about ziti – the code term the longtime confidant of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo used to allegedly describe the bribe money he got over the years.

But pasta wasn't on the minds of defense lawyers.

They spent their afternoon Tuesday in closing arguments on hours of attempts to discredit the prosecution’s star witness – former lobbyist Todd Howe, whose credibility was called into question even before he was arrested during the middle of his testimony a few weeks ago.

One defense lawyer, Stephen Coffey, even mocked Howe’s claim that he had a revelatory moment about telling the truth to prosecutors in 2016 as they were in the midst of their high-profile corruption investigation that has unearthed insights about Albany and state government.

“Todd Howe is going to come to Jesus,’’ Coffey said, as he then prepared to predict what Jesus Christ was going to someday say to Howe.

“Sustained,’’ U.S. District Court Judge Valerie E. Caproni said as she cut off Coffey, when prosecutors objected.

Six weeks into the trial of Percoco and three executives accused of allegedly bribing the former Cuomo adviser in exchange for government favors, prosecutors and defense lawyers spent all day Tuesday giving closing arguments to a case that could have sweeping implications for its sister case – the Buffalo Billion trial expected to start in June in the same courtroom.

The summations will continue Wednesday and the jury is expected to get the case possibly on Thursday.

Within seconds of opening his summation to the jury in a Manhattan federal courtroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Zhou quoted from a Percoco email: “Where the hell is the ziti?”

It was a reference – borrowed, as noted several times in the trial, from "The Sopranos" TV show – to more than $300,000 in payments allegedly steered Percoco's way from a Syracuse development firm and an energy company with a power plant interest before the state.

“This is not how honest and honorable public servants talk. This is how criminals talk,’’ Zhou told jurors in his nearly three-hour summation.

What Zhou spent little time discussing was Howe, another Cuomo insider who struck a deal with prosecutors in 2016 to cooperate in their probe of Percoco, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi of Syracuse’s Cor Development and Peter Galbraith Kelly, a former top executive with Competitive Power Ventures.

Howe has also cooperated with the government’s Buffalo Billion case – which features three former LPCiminelli executives, the former head of a SUNY college, Aiello and Gerardi – in a case set for trial this summer.

Howe was arrested earlier this month – ordered by the same prosecutors with whom he’s been cooperating – after admitting on the witness stand during his fourth day of testimony that he may have violated the terms of his cooperation agreement by trying to get a hotel credit card charge removed.

Defense lawyers were more than happy to talk about Howe.

“Make no mistake. The government’s case is heavily leveraged on Todd Howe,’’ Milton Williams, Gerardi’s lawyer, said.

Williams said Howe was an able hand at what he called Albany’s “magic phone call game” – where insiders can fix problems with one call to government officials. But, he said, Gerardi was a victim to Howe, “bedazzled” by a “brazen con man.’’ He said prosecutors turned a blind eye to Howe and let him “do whatever he wants” because he has been such an important part of their case.

Prosecutor Zhou Tuesday said corrupt acts were proven with many witnesses and thousands of pieces of evidence, not just Howe’s cooperation.

“It’s up to you to stop the damage of Todd Howe,’’ Williams told the jury.

Coffey noted what he called Howe’s long string of lies to prosecutors, the IRS, his former employer, friends and family members.

“Todd Howe is a walking, talking reasonable doubt,’’ Coffey said, calling the ex-lobbyist who over the years worked for Cuomo and raised money for his campaigns a “master deceiver.’’

Noting Howe faces a maximum 130-year sentence on the charges he’s already pleaded guilty to, Coffey scoffed at the cooperation arrangement Howe has with prosecutors that could result in a lesser sentence.

“Don’t forget for Todd Howe more bodies equals less time,’’ Coffey said. Of Howe, he said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office “has him by the throat.’’

Starting off his summation that will continue Wednesday, Daniel Gitner, a lawyer for Kelly, noted how Howe is still sitting in a jail after his Feb. 8 arrest. He said prosecutors, after highlighting Howe’s importance in opening statements six weeks ago, “tried to white wash (Howe) out of the trial today.’’

“The government has nothing but Todd Howe’s word,’’ Gitner said, saying Howe is “a man of no conscience.’’

The prosecution Tuesday walked jurors through a grab bag of evidence they’ve seen and testimony they’ve heard over the past six weeks.

“This is a serious case about serious crimes,’’ Zhou told them.

Zhou told jurors that defense lawyers purposely sought to confuse them over the past month-and-a-half in what he said, in the end, is a “simple case” of a top government official allegedly selling his position of power in the Cuomo administration to executives whose companies allegedly got millions of dollars’ worth of insider help from Percoco with everything from stalled government payments for a Syracuse construction project to help with an Orange County gas-fired power plant development.

Zhou reminded jurors of Percoco’s alleged financial issues he said had Percoco pressuring Howe to help him find ways to bring in money to the Percoco household.

Prosecutors allege Percoco got the energy company to allegedly hire his wife, Lisa Percoco, for a job as a consultant for $90,000 a year and that the Cor officials allegedly bribed him with $35,000 in payments in 2014 during a period when he stepped down for eight months from his state job to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spent more time in this trial than Lisa Percoco did in her $90,000 a year job,’’ Zhou said.

Zhou, using charts on display in the courtroom, went through the government’s case that Percoco allegedly engaged in an illegal quid pro quo. They sought to heavily make their case via a slew of emails obtained during the investigation showing what they allege was an ongoing scheme.

“When the opportunity came up for Joseph Percoco to use his power … he did,’’ Zhou said. Of one of the alleged bribe deals, he told jurors: “That should disgust you because it’s a crime.’’

Defense lawyers pounded each point of the government’s case, and called for jurors to acquit their clients.

“Quid pro quo? Quid pro nada,’’ Gitner said.

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