New York

Who’s paying ex-Cuomo aide’s legal bills? No one’s talking

Percoco: 'Why is that your business?'
Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, outside court last week.
Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, outside court last week.

NEW YORK — For the last four weeks, Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has been sitting in a federal courtroom, flanked by an impressive lineup of white-shoe, top-dollar legal help, to fend off an array of corruption charges and keep him out of prison.

But who exactly is paying for that team — a legal bill that experts say could easily run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — is not clear. And Percoco, a man who was so strapped a few years ago that prosecutors say he was practically begging for bribes, isn’t saying, either.

“Why is that your business?” Percoco responded when asked as he left the courtroom one day last week. “You should talk to my lawyer about it.”

His lead lawyer, Barry A. Bohrer, a partner and co-chairman of the white-collar defense practice of his firm, Schulte Roth & Zabel, declined to comment. Two other lawyers from the firm have assisted Bohrer at Percoco’s side most days in court, including a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Because Percoco left the state government in 2016 and is now a private citizen, someone else can legally pay his bills; the firm could also be donating its services.

William G. Ross, a law professor at Samford University who is an expert on legal fees, said partners at top white-collar defense firms in New York can charge $1,000 or more per hour. Without speculating about the Percoco case in particular, he said that total fees in a complex defense white-collar criminal prosecution “could easily exceed a million dollars.”

The question of who is picking up Percoco’s legal tab is of particular interest because of his close relationship with Cuomo, whose name has surfaced repeatedly in the trial. In the past, Cuomo has likened Percoco to a brother. They served together for decades, dating to when Cuomo headed the federal housing department. Percoco managed Cuomo’s campaigns in his 2010 and 2014 governor’s races and was his executive deputy secretary in Albany.

A spokesman for Cuomo, Richard Azzopardi, said the governor was unaware of who, if anyone, was paying Percoco’s legal bills, and said Cuomo had not had any conversations or made any requests to arrange for someone to help cover those costs.

Percoco is accused of taking at least $315,000 in bribes from his co-defendants in return for performing official acts on their companies’ behalf. The trial resumes Tuesday.

Schulte, Roth & Zabel’s representation of Percoco dates to the federal investigation into the Cuomo administration’s dissolving of the Moreland Commission. In 2016, Cuomo’s campaign committee paid $80,000 to Schulte, Roth & Zabel for what they said at the time was Percoco’s legal bills. The campaign has not paid the firm since then, records show.

Percoco left Cuomo’s office in January 2016 to join Madison Square Garden as a vice president. He left the company in “the spring of 2017,” the Garden said, which was several months after he was indicted in September 2016.

The chief executive of Madison Square Garden, James Dolan, is a major Cuomo donor, with more than $500,000 steered to the governor’s campaigns through various subsidiaries of a company he previously ran, Cablevision. The Madison Square Garden Co. said in a statement about Percoco that “neither Jim Dolan nor MSG are funding his trial.”

It is also possible that Bohrer and his colleagues have donated their services, but Ross, the expert on legal fees, said that generally “it would be unusual for a large firm to provide pro bono services for a white-collar defendant in a protracted case requiring a substantial investment of law firm resources.”

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