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Ex-Albany insider expected to tell all, if he can be believed

Ex-Albany insider expected to tell all, if he can be believed

Todd Howe’s testimony has been eagerly anticipated
Ex-Albany insider expected to tell all, if he can be believed
Joseph Percoco, a former aide and confidant to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in New York on Jan. 24, 2018.
Photographer: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times

By the time Todd R. Howe, the Albany insider-turned-government witness, begins his testimony in a major public corruption trial in Manhattan this week, his reputation will have already preceded him.

“He is a congenital liar, a pathological liar,” one defense lawyer, Barry A. Bohrer, told the jury in opening statements in late January, adding that Howe had deceived his wife, a bank, his children’s school — even his dog walkers.

A lawyer for another defendant said Howe, a longtime lobbyist, had “spent his entire adult life perfecting the art of the lie.”

“Todd lies when he talks. Todd lies when he writes,” the lawyer, Daniel M. Gitner, said. “You will lose track if you try to count the number of times Todd lied.”

And in case the message was still not clear, Milton L. Williams Jr., a lawyer for a third defendant, said Howe was “a liar who is trying to save his own neck.”

Howe’s testimony has been eagerly anticipated since federal prosecutors announced in 2016 that he had pleaded guilty and was cooperating with officials in an investigation of Joseph Percoco, a former senior aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and one of his closest friends. (Cuomo has not been accused of any wrongdoing.)

The government has charged that Percoco, one of four men on trial, accepted more than $300,000 in bribes from Howe’s clients in return for taking official actions on their behalf.

Howe, who had lobbied in Albany and Washington, has long-standing ties to the Cuomo family. He worked in the administration of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the current governor’s father, and he also worked under Andrew Cuomo when he served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton.

Defense lawyers’ attacks on Howe in Percoco’s trial began early and relentlessly, as they warned the jury that Howe could not be believed — a common defense tactic to try to weaken the credibility of a key witness.

A prosecutor, Robert L. Boone, clearly expecting the attacks, told the jury — even before the defense did — that Howe was a criminal who had pleaded guilty to eight felonies, many of which related to him telling lies.

“He has lied to his employer, he has lied to the IRS, and he’s even lied to the defendants. He will tell you all about it,” Boone said in his opening statement, adding that Howe had cooperated and was testifying “in hopes of getting a lower sentence.”

Boone signaled that the government would offer other, supportive evidence for Howe’s testimony.

The charges to which Howe pleaded guilty include extortion, wire fraud and conspiracies to commit honest services fraud and bribery. Six of the counts carry maximum prison sentences of 20 years each, but if Howe completes his cooperation successfully, prosecutors say they will write to the judge and seek leniency on his behalf.

If, on the other hand, Howe lies on the witness stand, the government could rip up his deal, and he could face years in prison — a possibility that Howe’s lawyer, Richard J. Morvillo, seemed to allude to in addressing Judge Valerie E. Caproni last week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

“I spent countless hours with him impressing upon him not only the obligation but the wisdom of his coming to tell the truth,” Morvillo said, even as he acknowledged that his client had a “history of not always telling the truth.”

While cooperating witnesses, with their fonts of insider knowledge and their eagerness to share it, can hold the key to a successful prosecution, they can just as well contribute to its unraveling.

In the same courthouse, in October, nine floors above the courtroom where Percoco is being tried, prosecutors leaned heavily upon Jona S. Rechnitz in building their case against Norman Seabrook, the powerful former chief of New York City’s correction officers union.

Rechnitz, a wealthy real estate scion who had agreed to cooperate with the government after pleading guilty to fraud conspiracy, spent days on the witness stand, describing for the jury how he had facilitated bribes between Seabrook and a hedge fund financier.

But defense lawyers excoriated Rechnitz in terms virtually identical to those that Percoco’s lawyers have hurled at Howe. They called him a felon, a con man and a pathological liar.

Those disparagements, coupled with Rechnitz’s smug and combative demeanor on the witness stand, may have weighed upon at least some members of the jury, which ultimately could not reach a verdict. After the mistrial was declared, one juror told reporters he had found Rechnitz to be a “straight-up liar.” (The government has said it would retry Seabrook.)

All the anticipation that has preceded Howe’s testimony — just the mention of his name last week seemed to make some courtroom spectators sit up straighter — has almost overshadowed the men actually on trial.

Morvillo, Howe’s lawyer, suggested as much in a recent letter to the judge, in which he referred to the defense’s attacks on Howe during opening statements.

“Those openings offered false narratives based on ‘alternative facts,'” Morvillo wrote, “and have tried to turn this into a trial of Mr. Howe.”

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