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Chagrined (and jailed), witness returns to stand

Chagrined (and jailed), witness returns to stand

He was allowed to wear street clothes
Chagrined (and jailed), witness returns to stand
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 — It was all, he said, just a terrible misunderstanding.

Todd R. Howe, the disgraced lobbyist at the heart of a sprawling New York corruption case, returned to the witness stand on Tuesday, fresh off a weekend spent in jail after his bail was revoked.

He appeared sheepish and ashamed, and he asserted that a seeming act of fraud that emerged last week during cross-examination — an attempt to claw back money from a luxury hotel in New York in 2016 — was a fault of his memory, not his well-documented mendacity.

“I wasn’t denying I stayed there,” Howe said. “I was just disputing it.”

Howe, who has pleaded guilty to eight felonies and is cooperating with prosecutors, is the key witness in the government’s case against Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Percoco is accused of solicitation of bribes, conspiracy and other charges, and is being tried in U.S. District Court in Manhattan alongside three co-defendants, executives with two companies accused of offering bribes.

Howe suggested in his testimony last week that he had helped steer Percoco some $315,000 in illicit payments over several years while Percoco was the governor’s executive deputy secretary, and as Cuomo’s campaign manager in 2014.

But the high-profile trial was thrown into chaos on Thursday after cross-examination by a defense lawyer elicited Howe’s admission that he had tried to persuade a credit card company to refund a $604 charge for a stay at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in June 2016; he falsely claimed he had not stayed there, even though he had, during a trip to discuss the case with prosecutors.

After Thursday’s proceedings, Howe was arrested and taken into custody, transported to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, where he has remained incarcerated.

And on Tuesday, Daniel Gitner, the lawyer who had elicited the testimony about the hotel bill, made sure the jury knew that Howe was no longer a free man.

“You spent the weekend in jail?” Gitner asked Howe.

Howe said yes.

Gitner then pressed Howe, who previously claimed to have had a “come to Jesus” moment and embraced telling the truth, asking how many times he had promised prosecutors that he was “a completely changed man”?

“Every time I walked in the door,” Howe said.

Howe’s cooperation agreement with the government requires him to admit all previous crimes and commit no additional crimes, something that may put that agreement in jeopardy. And Gitner repeatedly asked whether Howe had told the government “about all your crimes.”

“To the best of my knowledge,” Howe said.

Gitner then pounced again, showing that Howe had signed a 2016 mortgage application on which he listed himself as a “partner” of an Albany law firm where he served only as its chief lobbyist.

“It was false, correct?” Gitner asked.

“Yes, it was,” said Howe.

Howe’s history of lying and bad finances was also on display last week during cross-examination, when he admitted to a long list of lies, missed payments to contractors and vendors, and to having doctored emails sent to various clients. Emails play a large part in the government’s case against Percoco.

In a small victory for prosecutors, Howe was allowed to wear street clothes — rather than jail attire — to testify on Tuesday. He wore a dark suit, resting his cheek on his fist and rarely glancing in the direction of the jury.

At one point, Gitner asked Howe a question that he had asked last week, whether he was “in more trouble” than he had ever been in.

Howe’s answer on Tuesday was unequivocal. “I believe,” he said, “I’m in a whole lot of trouble.”

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