Once Cuomo’s trusted aide, Percoco is sentenced to 6 years for corruption

Percoco was convicted in March of soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes
Joseph Percoco walks out of Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan, Sept. 20, 2018.
Joseph Percoco walks out of Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan, Sept. 20, 2018.

NEW YORK — Joseph Percoco, a former top adviser and confidant to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was sentenced to six years in prison Thursday in a case that cast a long and unflattering shadow over the Cuomo administration.

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 that this sentence will be heard in Albany,” Judge Valerie E. Caproni, of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, said before sentencing.

She said the case had reached to the highest level of the executive branch. “Frankly, it’s not surprising that the citizenry of this state have absolutely lost faith in their government.”

Percoco sat impassively as the sentence was announced, his lips pursed, his hands in front of him. He declined to comment afterward; his lawyer, Barry Bohrer, said Percoco would appeal.

Albany has long been plagued by corruption, and federal prosecutors in New York City have racked up convictions of some of the capital’s most powerful figures, including Sheldon Silver, the former powerful Democratic speaker of the state Assembly, and Dean Skelos, the former Republican state Senate majority leader.

But the conviction and sentencing of Percoco hit Cuomo in a much closer, more personal way. Percoco was extremely loyal to the governor, working behind the scenes to protect him, using his political muscle with pugnacious verve.

Percoco, who had served as executive deputy secretary and campaign manager 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.”

After the sentencing, the governor took note of Percoco’s family, saying in a statement that on “a personal level, the human tragedy for Joe’s young children and family is a very sad consequence.”

“Joe Percoco is paying the price for violating the public trust,” Cuomo said. “And it should serve as a warning to anyone who fails to uphold his or her oath as a public servant.”

The bulk of the bribes came in the form of a “low-show” job given to Percoco’s wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, by an energy company, Competitive Power Ventures, which had wanted to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley.

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 that Percoco entered and exited 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.

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 2016, they also revealed that Howe had pleaded guilty to eight felonies and was cooperating with 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.

Percoco, before being sentenced, apologized for his actions. “I lie awake every night thinking of the things I could have done differently,” he said.

Caproni, who presided over two other prominent Albany graft trials this year, including Silver’s, seemed unmoved. She stressed the importance of deterring public corruption generally.

“There’s so much money sloshing around in politics,” the judge said, “that even the most Pollyannish of citizens has to wonder whether any public decision is being made on the merits.”

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 seeking leniency for Percoco.

Larry Schwartz, one of the secretaries, described the deep ties Percoco had forged with 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.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the sentence sent a strong message that corrupt public officials “will be held accountable.”

While prosecutors did not accuse Cuomo of any wrongdoing, the trial loomed 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.

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 corruption — and in his view of Cuomo’s as well.

“Andrew Cuomo was sentenced today — he just doesn’t have to do the time,” Molinaro said in a statement.

In Percoco’s more than seven-week trial, Cuomo’s name was mentioned 136 times in testimony, cross-examination and legal arguments, transcripts showed.

For government watchdogs, the trial illuminated the swamp of corruption in Albany, as well as officials’ refusal to address it. When Cuomo first announced his intention to run for governor in 2010, he said that Albany’s antics “could make Boss Tweed blush. Our message today is simple. Enough is enough.”

After Percoco’s conviction, Cuomo pledged to “put additional safeguards in place to secure the public trust.” But similar vows have been unfulfilled.

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