ALBANY – It’s become a reliable refrain over the past generation: New York has grown weary of government corruption cases coming out of Albany.
That frustration, as it turns out, can be seen bubbling over in the views of some potential jury members in the Buffalo Billion corruption trial. Jury selection in the case begins Monday for the trial starting June 18.
In written answers to a vetting document the court and lawyer are using to help select a jury, numerous people revealed strong – and often angry – opinions about their state government, the role of campaign contributions, influential special interests, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the impact various corruption cases have had on the way the state is run.
According to transcripts of a federal court hearing held last week in Manhattan, some potential jurors signaled they not only have paid attention to the many high-profile government corruption cases, but also have formed razor-sharp opinions about how they believe their state government operates.
Question 9 of the jury form asked potential Buffalo Billion jurors if they had paid attention to the news about New York corruption cases in recent years. “Yes, but not closely,’’ wrote Juror 82. He added: “There are a lot of them, suggesting a surprising amount of corruption among New York officials.’’
“There have been a surprising number of trials recently,’’ U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni, who is presiding over the Buffalo Billion trial, told defense lawyers trying to bounce Juror 82. Just this year alone, Caproni was the judge in the bribery corruption case whose defendants included Joseph Percoco, the once mighty political and personal adviser to Cuomo, and the more recent re-trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Potential jurors had to complete a 34-page questionnaire as a way to speed up the selection process. The Buffalo Billion case involves alleged bid rigging of high-profile deals in Buffalo and Syracuse, and its defendants are: Louis Ciminelli, the former head of Buffalo’s LPCiminelli real estate construction and development firm; Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi of Syracuse’s Cor Development; and, Alain Kaloyeros, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute who was tapped by Cuomo to oversee major upstate projects, including the state’s $750 million investment in the RiverBend solar plant that was built by Ciminelli’s company.
Lawyers for the defendants and prosecutors squared off last Wednesday before Caproni in a hearing that touched on numerous legal matters, including efforts by both sides to eject some people from the jury pool.
Finding fair and impartial people
One of Ciminelli’s lawyers, Timothy W. Hoover of Buffalo’s Hodgson Russ, told the judge that Juror 82 “is someone that comes in with a preconceived bias that will bear on the issues of the case given what the government is going to seek to prove.’’
But Caproni, as she would to most such requests, denied it, saying she wanted to hear what the potential jurors in question had to say when she questions them Monday. Are their views so strong that they cannot be fair and impartial? Or, did they write what they did to try to get out of serving on a trial that could stretch until the end of July – or later. The judge said that’s for her to learn.
Juror 122, as noted by Michael C. Miller, a lawyer for Kaloyeros with the Manhattan firm Steptoe & Johnson, indicated he had little faith in the honesty of public officials. The easy giveaway: The person said most politicians “are crooks.’’
“I have a predisposition that most of what goes on with public officials is tainted. This is especially true when money is involved. This taints (sic) spreads to developers as they are usually in bed with them,’’ Miller quotes the person as writing.
Of Cuomo, the potential juror wrote: “He disbanded the Moreland Commission. That says it all.’’ The Moreland Commission was investigating government corruption when Cuomo, who empaneled the group, shut it down in 2014; a federal investigation into possible interference by Cuomo and his aides into the panel’s work ended with then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara saying there was “insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime.’’
Juror 122 slammed Silver, the former Assembly leader, as possibly “the most corrupt of all and that speaks for itself as New York is loaded with dirt bags.’’
“He clearly has a low opinion of politicians,’’ the judge said Wednesday of the potential juror. She added: “I think we need to see how really deep these feelings are as opposed to he thinks this is a good way of getting out of jury duty.’’
Another juror, number 39, also noted that Cuomo “disbanded” the anti-corruption panel, adding, “One has to wonder what is being hidden." The potential juror, answering a question if he or she had strong opinions about Cuomo or other officials that might make difficult to be fair and impartial in the Buffalo Billion case, responded with a non-specific reference to the “conviction of his close friend," according to Hoover. Percoco was his close friend and Hoover told the judge he believed the juror was referring to that recent case.
“I have, unfortunately, doubts about Governor Cuomo and many politicians," the juror wrote. Later, the same person also wrote that “campaign contributions are legal corruption. Money in politics is legal bribery."
The judge rejected defense lawyers’ effort to bounce the person from the jury pool saying she wants to hear from the individual in person if he or she can be impartial. She said citizens are entitled to opinions “about the perception or the reality of the level of corruption in government.”
“If a full jury was made up of people who were so milquetoast they have no view on these things, that’s not a fair cross-section," the judge added.
When defense lawyers raised concerns about another potential juror's expressed concerns about the role of money in politics and government, the judge responded: “On this one she has a view that there’s too much money sloshing around in government. That I think is a view shared by lots and lots and lots of people. I don’t think that in and of itself disqualifies him or her so long as the juror agrees that they will listen to the law and follow the law."
Cuomo is not accused of any wrongdoing in the case. But prosecutors will seek to show the jury about large and timely donations to Cuomo, especially from Ciminelli and his family, at about the time LPCiminelli was – according to the government’s case – engaged in a bid-rigging scheme in which executives helped write a state request for a proposal that ended up being awarded to LPCiminelli for the Buffalo Billion program.
The defendants have all said no illegal acts were committed. A former top LPCiminelli executive, Kevin Schuler, recently pleaded guilty in the case and has since been cooperating with prosecutors.
Potential jurors express concerns
Juror 47, according to Hoover, wrote in response to one question: “I do not agree with individuals doing business with New York State and also making campaign contributions. It should not be allowed."
Juror 40, according to Hoover, wrote of holding a belief that “real estate construction businesses like to steal money from individuals and families as it’s currently impossible to buy any form of real estate in New York today."
Robert L. Boone, one of the prosecutors, told the judge it’s unrealistic to think jurors won’t have opinions on matters, “particularly with regards to it seems like they have an issue with sort of paying high rent in New York."
“Don’t we all?" the judge responded.
Hoover paraphrased and quoted the answers from Juror 60, noting he made references to various trials of state lawmakers and then made an “odd reference” to the Buffalo Billion case. “I wonder about Percoco," the potential juror wrote. The Percoco and Buffalo Billion cases had once been a single case before Caproni split them in two. Hoover said the answers showed a predetermined bias.
“No, it means they read the newspaper and they actually are probably more of a news junky than a lot of people. Most people are not going to make that connection. This person did, remembered that all – that was all one trial," the judge responded.
In the end, Juror 60 wasn’t bounced for those views, or for saying there should be more corruption trials of politicians or that those making large political donations are looking for benefits. His name was removed from the Buffalo Billion jury pool for having a rare form of cancer that needs treatment.
Another person, identified as Juror 79, believes that Cuomo “unfairly favors real estate interest(s) in the state because they make large contributions to him," according to Hoover in paraphrasing the person’s response.
Juror 85 noted how “many deals in Albany occurred because of the governor brokering back-room deals,’’ Hoover said quoting the person’s response. “The juror is very skeptical about the sitting governor … (and) the decision making … based on his desire to run for president in the future,’’ Hoover told the judge. The potential juror wrote of “big donors getting unequal access to government contracts,’’ the lawyer added.
The judge, who prizes courtroom efficiency and told lawyers she expects a full jury should be selected on Monday, showed a reluctance to let many jurors out of their service simply for expressing an opinion or declaring a hardship. Someone studying for the bar exam was let go, as were people with specific vacation plans. But the judge said she wanted to hear if there were alternative care options available for one woman who said she couldn’t serve because she had to help her 89-year-old mother with medical issues.
Then there was Juror 102. The person is a regular fan of the series "Billions," which Showtime bills as a “drama about power politics in the world of New York high finance."
“This is our person who watches 'Billions' and he or she sees corruption exposed first-hand in our political system," the judge noted on Wednesday.
Both sides wanted that person off the jury list. Hoover said the person seems like someone with “a real issue serving on a jury." Boone, the prosecutor who will be turning to former LPCiminelli’s Schuler as a witness for the government, raised a worry that the individual believes “that cooperating witnesses are being rewarded for turning on their friends."
The judge, again, said she wants to hear what Juror 102 has to say in person. “May just need a little instruction that 'Billions,' as entertaining as it is, is not true life."