Later Monday, the first of a series of federal corruption trials begins for several former associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The proceedings in the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan will focus on bribery and other charges against Cuomo’s former closest aide, Joseph Percoco.
Percoco worked for Andrew Cuomo and his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, on and off since Percoco was a teenager. Mario Cuomo once referred to Percoco as his “third son.”
Percoco, 48, from the lower Hudson Valley, was often seen by Andrew Cuomo’s side during Cuomo’s time as State Attorney General and during his first five years as governor. He was the governor’s top confidante and, in some cases, chief enforcer of Cuomo’s policies and wishes.
The charges against him stem from his dealings with two different sets of developers. One, a power company known as Competitive Power Ventures, wanted to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley. Percoco allegedly tried to ease the way for permits for the plant. In exchange, the company’s owner, Peter Galbraith Kelley, gave Percoco’s wife, a middle school teacher, $287,000 over four years for a low- show job to teach children about energy. Kelley is also on trial for bribery. The power plant was never built.
The second set of charges involves two Syracuse area developers who were involved in Cuomo’s economic development projects, and were political donors of the governor. Percoco allegedly received $35,000 from the companies to ease troubles they were having with a union and to receive more aid for a $15 million film studio outside Syracuse that still stands empty.
The dealings with the Syracuse developers occurred in 2014, when Percoco was not technically on the state payroll. He had taken a leave to manage Cuomo’s re election campaign. Percoco’s attorneys argue that since he was not then working for state government, he could not use the influence of his office to sell favors.
Percoco said at the time he intended to start a private lobbying firm, but eventually rejoined state government and stayed until he took a job with Madison Square Garden in early 2016.
The prosecution’s case will be aided by another former longtime Cuomo associate. Lobbyist Todd Howe, who worked for the governor when he was federal HUD secretary, pleaded guilty to helping arrange the deals between Percoco and the developers. He is expected to provide key testimony.
Cuomo has not been implicated in any of the cases, and has said he had “no idea” that any of it was going on. He was asked about the upcoming trials in a recent question and answer session with reporters. His answers were short and to the point, when he was asked whether the trials would be a distraction.
“No,” he said.
The governor also said he does not expect to testify in the case.
Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said if past corruption trials are any indication, there will be plenty of unflattering testimony about the inner workings of Cuomo’s government.
“It will paint a negative picture of politics in New York in terms of the revelations that will come out in these cases,” said Horner.
Horner says there’s precedent for embarrassment. In the so-called "bridgegate trial" in New Jersey, that state’s governor, Chris Christie, was not charged with any wrongdoing in connection with a scheme by his administration to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish a local mayor. Christie’s popularity declined after the trial and he did not seek re-election.
Percoco’s trial marks the beginning of several months of court proceedings against former Cuomo associates, as well as some ex-state lawmakers. This spring, former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos face retrial on corruption charges, after their initial convictions were thrown out on appeal. In May, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, and the prior leader of Cuomo’s high-tech economic development efforts, will be tried for allegedly conducting kickback and bid rigging schemes related to economic development contracts between SUNY Poly and state contractors.