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What you need to know for 02/23/2018

Truthfulness of star witness questioned at Percoco trial

Truthfulness of star witness questioned at Percoco trial

'Are you an honest man?'
Truthfulness of star witness questioned at Percoco trial
Todd Howe (center) leaves the courthouse after his first day of testimony in the corruption case against Joseph Percoco.
Photographer: Dave Sanders/The New York Times

NEW YORK — The defense lawyer’s first question was as blunt as they come.

“Are you,” asked the lawyer, Barry A. Bohrer, “an honest man?”

The witness responded immediately.

“I am today,” he said.

So began the critical cross-examination of Todd R. Howe, the government’s star witness in the federal corruption trial of Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who stands accused of an array of charges, including conspiracy, extortion and solicitation of bribes.

Howe, whose testimony began Monday, had painted a sordid picture of the powerful Percoco as practically begging for bribe money — which the two men referred to as “ziti,” a reference from “The Sopranos” — from two companies that had business before the state.

As a friend of both Percoco’s and Cuomo’s, Howe was in the position of giving an unvarnished view of the inner workings of Albany. Cuomo, a Democrat seeking a third term, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Under cross-examination in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Howe admitted to his own disreputable past, a life of lies and broken promises, unmet obligations and unsavory business dealings.

He admitted to a litany of unpaid bills, legal judgments and defaulted mortgages that had dogged him for two decades. These included a 2010 felony conviction for theft related to a fraudulent $45,000 bank deposit.

He had also embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years from Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, an Albany law firm where he had set up a lobbying practice, and he had evaded taxes on more than $1 million he funneled to a side lobbying firm called Potomac Strategies.

“I was living way above my means,” Howe said on Wednesday, “and I had dug myself into a deep hole.”

Howe, an old friend of Percoco’s, has pleaded guilty to felony charges and has been cooperating with the government against Percoco and three executives of two firms, COR Development and Competitive Power Ventures, who are also on trial.

His cross-examination comes in the third week of Percoco’s trial. After Bohrer concludes his questioning of Howe, lawyers for each of the three co-defendants are to follow.

The government had told the jury that it would introduce other, supporting evidence to Howe’s testimony, and that Howe had been cooperating in hopes of receiving a more lenient sentence.

He testified on Monday that his cooperation deal required him to be truthful, and that if he were to lie, prosecutors would “rip up this agreement.”

On Wednesday, Howe, for the most part, maintained his composure as Bohrer drilled him with questions about his past.

“You had a history of not being truthful, correct?” Bohrer asked Howe.

“Yes,” Howe said.

Had he lied to his family? To his friends? To his colleagues? To his employer? Bohrer asked.

“Yes,” Howe responded each time.

Howe admitted that he had also lied to banks, vendors, his lawyer, even to dog walkers.

His testimony showed him to be adept at borrowing money but not paying it back. Years earlier, he said, he borrowed $82,000 from a relative, promising to repay it in 45 days. It took five years and a court judgment for Howe to make good on the debt.

He had filed for bankruptcy, and repeatedly neglected payments to a variety of vendors, contractors, and other businesses — including a tutor for his son — while he continued to work as a lobbyist in Albany and Washington.

In 2010, Howe’s fortunes seemed to be changing as Cuomo began a run for governor. In May 2010, Howe received an email from Percoco, saying, it was time to activate the “brotherhood” of Cuomo family associates, and asking that he join the campaign. (Percoco and Howe had both worked for Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor — and father of the current governor — who died in 2015.)

Howe acknowledged under cross-examination that after receiving Percoco’s email, he forwarded it to several associates, but only after doctoring it to make it appear Percoco had also written, “I need to tell A.C. ASAP.”

The additional language was to suggest that Percoco said that he needed to tell Andrew Cuomo “as soon as possible” whether Howe would be joining the campaign.

“You added that to make yourself look more important, right?” Bohrer asked.

“Yes,” Howe said.

Howe testified that he had repeatedly altered emails before forwarding them, to place himself in a better light or suggest he had greater access to officials.

He said he decided in 2016 to assist the government after a “come-to-Jesus” meeting with his lawyer.

“I needed to step up and accept the responsibility,” he said, “and that would be the best thing for myself and for my family.”

But Bohrer went back and forth with Howe, suggesting that avoiding a long prison term was his primary motivation.

“This agreement was really your ticket to getting a reduced sentence, right?” Bohrer asked.

Howe, now 57 and working as a groundskeeper in Idaho, rejected that interpretation, saying his primary reason “was to sit here today and tell the truth and be honest.”

As Bohrer pressed him, Howe snapped at the defense lawyer, asserting that he was telling the truth, but not only because of the deal with prosecutors.

“I am telling the truth because I made horrible mistakes,” Howe testified. “I wrecked my career. I damaged my family, I lost all my associates.”

“So, I find it a bit insulting you’re saying the only reason I told the truth is to get a get-out-of-jail-free card, because that is not true.”

“Are you finished?” Bohrer remarked.

“Yeah, I’m finished,” Howe replied.

Howe’s cross-examination resumes Thursday.

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