For New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the political damage, it seems, is already done.
Over the past six weeks, federal prosecutors in Manhattan unspooled a streaming spectacle of unflattering tales of how Cuomo, 60, conducts himself and how his administration has conducted the people’s business in Albany.
Witnesses and court records told stories of the governor’s pitching a screaming fit after an upstate development deal fell through; allowing Joseph Percoco, a former top aide and confidant who is one of four defendants on trial, to continue to use a state office and phone while he served as his campaign manager in 2014; being cajoled into talking cars, for a half-hour, with an executive of a company now accused of trying to bribe Percoco to do their bidding.
State election laws were ignored or flouted, critics say, and campaign finance rules exploited to allow Cuomo’s donors to use multiple, anonymous companies to give amply to his coffers, a practice urged on by a longtime Cuomo associate.
The governor has not been accused of illegal acts, and prosecutors and the federal judge in charge of the case, Judge Valerie E. Caproni, have stressed that the donations in question were legal. Nonetheless, the corruption trial, which enters its fourth day of jury deliberations Tuesday, may well tarnish the well-groomed reputation of Cuomo, a second-term Democrat facing re-election in the fall. It may also complicate or undercut any national ambitions, which would need to take flight in places like Iowa next year.
“Any time a close adviser or aide is charged with corruption reflects badly on a politician,” said Ben Tulchin, a pollster for Bernie Sanders during his presidential race. “It’s even worse if it’s New York: Voters in the heartland already have a jaded view of New York politics and politicians.”
There are some indications that the Percoco trial has hurt Cuomo’s popularity. A Quinnipiac University poll in mid-February found him with an approval rating of 47 percent. A whopping 63 percent said Cuomo should not run for president, including almost half the respondents from his own party.
Cuomo has scrupulously avoided talking about the trial, saying he respects the legal process. He has held noticeably few public events in recent weeks, and has mostly avoided unscripted questions from the press.
Democratic strategists said the corruption case was all but assured to be part of Cuomo’s national introduction, should he run for president, especially if Percoco were to be found guilty.
Those looking to paint Cuomo as being ethically challenged have the benefit of an indelible catchword from the trial: “ziti,” the much-used code word the prosecution contends Percoco and his fellow conspirators used to describe the under-the-table payments he received while serving as Cuomo’s campaign manager and senior aide.
Here in New York, even before the jury returns its verdict, a collection of government watchdog groups have issued a scathing assessment of what-we-learned-at-trial, calling out “stunning failures in New York’s ethics oversight system” under Cuomo. The groups also demanded answers to a series of questions raised by the trial, including why “so many high ranking officials were allowed to conduct business through personal emails,” something illustrated, again and again, during testimony.
Indeed, the trial reinforced the Capitol’s shoddy reputation for ethics, something Cuomo promised to fix when he first ran for governor in 2010. Even then, however, the governor seemed willing to take advantage of donors’ generosity: Testimony at trial showed that Cuomo, in the closing days of that campaign, used a private plane from a company, Competitive Power Ventures, later accused of bribing Percoco. An executive with another company involved in the scandal, COR Development, a Syracuse-area developer, wooed Cuomo with talk of Corvettes at a fundraiser for him, knowing his affinity for those sports cars.
The Percoco trial also shed light on the use of sometimes shadowy limited liability companies to flood money into state campaigns, including those of Cuomo, who has been a major beneficiary of the “LLC loophole.” In one instance, the government’s star witness, Todd R. Howe, showed how COR, a company with business before the state, purposefully split contributions — and used nondescript names on the LLCs — to hide their origin.
While those activities were legal, the disclosures have been met with glee by the governor’s opponents, in particular the beleaguered state Republican Party.
In a post on Twitter, Cuomo’s most outspoken Republican opponent, state Sen. John DeFrancisco, said the trial illustrated how Cuomo “has sold his office to the highest bidder, engaging in shakedown schemes, exchanging government contracts for millions in campaign donations.” DeFrancisco wrote last week, “So pathetic, it would make Boss Tweed blush.”
The chairman of the state Republican Party, Edward F. Cox, has asked a state ethics panel to investigate Cuomo, saying the governor has violated the New York Public Officers Law, and has requested the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to also investigate.
Cox, whose party has not won a statewide election in New York since 2002, saw parallels between Cuomo’s guilt-by-association and that of former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose proximity to the bridge-closing scandal known as Bridgegate helped dent his national profile.
“This is the end of Gov. Cuomo’s political future,” Cox said at a news conference last month before the steps of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where Percoco is being tried.
That may be an overstatement; unlike Christie, whose former aides implicated him at trial for knowing of the decision to close bridge lanes, Cuomo has not been similarly besmirched.
And officials with the state Democratic Party, controlled by Cuomo, shot back at any suggestion that the governor would be hurt by the Percoco trial.
“After years of investigation, there has never been a suggestion that the governor or anyone else besides the people on trial did anything wrong,” Geoff Berman, the party’s executive director, said, calling DeFrancisco “the Boss Tweed of Albany.”
Indeed, with $30 million in the bank and no top-tier opponent in the contest, Cuomo remains a heavy favorite to win re-election this year. Among Democrats, no serious primary challenger has yet emerged, though two women, a former Syracuse mayor, Stephanie Miner, and actress Cynthia Nixon, have publicly toyed with running.
But if his ambitions extend to the White House in 2020 — and Cuomo has increasingly framed his agenda in national terms — the trial, especially if it ends in a conviction, threatens to muddy his core argument that he can be a capable and trusted custodian of the state, or especially, the country.
“These kinds of things typically emerge either soon after he first announces or soon after he gains traction,” Tulchin said. “Assuming he gains any.”