By Benjamin Weiser and Vivian Wang
NEW YORK – Joseph Percoco, a former top adviser and confidante to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was sentenced to six years in prison Thursday in a case that cast a spotlight on the culture of graft and secret dealing that has pervaded the state capital.
Percoco, 49, was convicted in March of soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from executives of two companies with state business in return for taking official actions on the firms’ behalf.
“I hope this sentence will be heard in Albany,” Judge Valerie E. Caproni, of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, said before announcing the sentence.
The bulk of the bribes came in the form of a “low-show” job given to Percoco’s wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, by a Maryland-based energy company, Competitive Power Ventures, which had wanted to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley.
While prosecutors did not accuse Cuomo of any wrongdoing, the trial cast a long and unflattering shadow over his administration, especially in light of early campaign promises when he was first elected to clean up Albany.
In Percoco’s more than seven-week trial, Cuomo’s name was mentioned 136 times in testimony, cross-examination and legal arguments, transcripts showed.
The trial loomed over Cuomo throughout a bruising primary season, as his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, repeatedly pointed to the scandal as proof of the corrupt culture she said the governor had fomented in Albany.
She argued that either he had been aware of the corruption going on among some of his closest associates, or that if he had indeed been oblivious, he was woefully incompetent. The sentencing had initially been scheduled for before the primary election last week, when it might have provided Nixon more ammunition.
Cuomo’s Republican opponent in the general election, the Dutchess County executive, Marcus Molinaro, has also frequently cited Percoco’s conviction as evidence of Albany’s corrupt culture.
Cuomo said after the verdict that he believed there should be “no tolerance for any violation of the public trust.” Last month, during his lone debate with Nixon, he described Percoco’s conviction as “a painful situation,” adding, “He’s going to pay a terrible price.”
Just before Percoco was sentenced Thursday, he apologized for his actions.
“I live with the consequences every single day of my life,” he said. “I lie awake every night thinking of the things I could have done differently.”
“For any harm that I may have caused to my family, my friends and the people of the state of New York, I sincerely apologize.”
Percoco, who had served as executive deputy secretary to Cuomo, had also been close to his father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, for whom Percoco had gone to work after college. Andrew Cuomo once described Percoco as “my father’s third son, who I sometimes think he loved the most.”
Prosecutors had sought to show that Percoco, in addition to taking bribes, flouted state ethics rules openly and with impunity. At one point, they introduced swipe data showing Percoco entering and exiting the governor’s taxpayer-paid office even after he left state government to work on Cuomo’s campaign. After the trial ended, Cuomo seemed to acknowledge that he had been aware of Percoco’s presence, although he said he thought Percoco was there to handle “transition matters.”
In building its case against Percoco, the government relied heavily on another longtime Cuomo family ally: Todd Howe, a longtime lobbyist and Albany insider who had been a mentor to Percoco.
Howe had been a scheduling director for Mario Cuomo in 1991, and later worked for Andrew Cuomo when he was Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Bill Clinton. Prosecutors said Howe arranged for the bribes to be paid to Percoco by the power company, CPV, and a Syracuse-based developer, COR Development, which were both Howe’s clients.
When prosecutors announced the charges against Percoco in September 2016, they also revealed that Howe had pleaded guilty to eight felonies and had become a cooperating witness for the government.
During the trial, Howe risked unraveling the government’s case when he admitted under cross-examination that he had tried to defraud a credit card company, violating the terms of his cooperation agreement and tainting his credibility as a witness in real time. He was jailed but continued to testify in the trial.
The jury convicted Percoco after eight days of deliberations.
In a sign of the influence Percoco once wielded, several members of Cuomo’s inner circle – including two of his former secretaries, the second-highest-ranking position in state government – were among the dozens of people who sent letters to Caproni asking for leniency in Percoco’s sentence. Larry Schwartz, one of the secretaries, described the deep ties Percoco had forged to the elder Cuomo. Steven Cohen, the other secretary, called Percoco a “remarkably selfless” public servant who had been instrumental in helping the governor pass signature policies including marriage equality.
“Overwhelmingly in his public career, Joe behaved honorably, served the public good and acted with the best of intentions,” Cohen wrote.
For government watchdogs, the trial illuminated the swamp of corruption in Albany, as well as officials’ refusal to address it.
After Percoco’s conviction, Cuomo pledged to “put additional safeguards in place to secure the public trust.” But such safeguards have yet to materialize.