New York

Cuomo, at least his name, is omnipresent at bribery trial

Governor has distanced himself from Joseph Percoco since his arrest in 2016
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in New York on Jan. 21, 2018.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in New York on Jan. 21, 2018.

NEW YORK — One was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s loyal bulldog, a longtime friend as dear as a brother. The other was also an administration fixture, a former aide turned lobbyist, who saw in Cuomo’s political ascension an opportunity to turn around his own ailing finances.

Both knew the sway that the governor’s name held over the other. And, as federal prosecutors tell it, as they hatched a complicated corruption scheme, both bandied Cuomo’s name to spur the other to action or to press their own advantages.

As the trial of the friend, Joseph Percoco, who served as Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, continues in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Cuomo’s name has surfaced again and again as a preferred tool of Percoco and the lobbyist, Todd Howe.

Percoco is charged with accepting bribes in return for official actions on behalf of upstate developers; Howe, who has pleaded guilty to eight felonies and is cooperating with prosecutors, claims he facilitated the bribes. (Howe was taken into custody Thursday after admitting on the witness stand that he had lied to the government after signing his cooperation agreement.)

Cuomo has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and he has distanced himself from Percoco — the man he had once called his father’s third son — since his arrest in 2016.

But the governor’s omnipresence in the testimony suggests that both men were highly cognizant of the power of Cuomo’s name, and of how even the suggestion of his approbation could help get the results they wanted.

In 2013, one of Howe’s clients, an executive with the energy firm Competitive Power Ventures, was eager to win a state contract. Howe reached out to Percoco, asking him to try and ensure the client’s success. (The executive, Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., is one of Percoco’s three co-defendants.)

Howe told Percoco that a competing firm had enlisted “some former Pataki guy” to lobby on its behalf — an apparent reference to someone with ties to former Gov. George Pataki. It was well-known that Pataki, a Republican, was a persona non grata in the Cuomo world, having unseated the governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, in 1994.

Barry Bohrer, Percoco’s lawyer, suggested that Howe had included the Pataki detail to “light a fire” under Percoco, who was known for his fierce loyalty to the Cuomo family.

“By invoking the Pataki name, you thought that Joe might see red?” Bohrer asked Howe on Thursday.

Howe parried, saying he could not recall the name of the “former Pataki guy.” But, he acknowledged, “I knew it certainly would — Joe would look into it.”

Apparently, he did. “I need that guy’s name right away,” Percoco replied, according to Howe.

Cuomo has demurred when asked about the trial since it began last month. At an appearance on Long Island on Thursday, Cuomo, a Democrat, said he had “a great deal of respect for the legal process” and would not comment on ongoing testimony.

For his part, Percoco used Cuomo’s name to nudge Howe to help him find a lucrative private sector job.

Howe testified that when he seemed to equivocate on finding Percoco a position with Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, the Albany-based lobbying firm for which Howe worked, Percoco told him that “he had gotten approval from the governor himself” to work for the firm.

When Howe suggested that his firm in particular might not be the right fit, Percoco tried a different tack.

“The governor said it was OK for me to be hired by your clients,” Howe said Percoco told him.

Asked about Howe’s claims, Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, pointed to a news conference in 2016 in which Cuomo said that he had known Percoco might take private consulting work after leaving the executive chamber in 2014, but that he did not know with whom or the nature of the work.

Howe has testified repeatedly to the financial and professional benefits he saw in highlighting — and, according to the governor’s office, exaggerating — his ties to Cuomo. He would often forward emails that he received from Percoco to his clients, but not before editing them to make it seem as if Percoco had described Howe’s importance to the governor.

In May 2010, for example, when Percoco sent Howe an email asking him to join Cuomo’s campaign for governor, Howe forwarded it to several associates, but only after doctoring it to make it seem as if Percoco had also written, “I need to tell A.C. ASAP” — an attempt to make it seem as if Cuomo was eagerly awaiting Howe’s decision.

He also edited emails to make it seem as if Cuomo had asked him to speak to people on his behalf, or had invited him to dinner, Howe admitted.

“You did it in simple terms for self-promotion, right?” Bohrer asked Wednesday.

“Probably, yes,” Howe replied.

“To give the impression that you had greater access to the governor than you really did, right?” Bohrer continued.

“Yes,” Howe replied.

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