When Joseph Percoco called, the Cuomo administration jumped.
Stalled projects moved to the top of the to-do list. The governor’s schedule was rearranged at the last minute. Children of campaign donors received raises. Requirements to hire union workers evaporated.
Through testimony, photographs and emails, prosecutors in Percoco’s ongoing federal corruption trial have sought to portray him as having more sway in the administration than anyone else other than Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo himself.
Even when he temporarily left his state job.
Percoco still kept his office next to Cuomo’s and his swipe card to enter the building, and made 837 calls on state-owned telephones, pushing pet projects and getting pay raises for a favored employee, investigators say.
The former longtime and closest aide to Cuomo (whom the late Gov. Mario Cuomo considered a “third son,” Andrew Cuomo once said) now stands accused of using his influence to rig lucrative state construction contracts for campaign contributors who, in turn, paid him bribes.
Prosecutors say, among other things, Percoco, 48, was $1 million in debt and needed to pay a mortgage on an expansive new Westchester County home.
He has pleaded not guilty; lawyers for Percoco and the other defendants haven’t argued that the payments didn’t occur; they say they were perfectly legal while Percoco temporarily was working as a private consultant and as Cuomo’s re-election campaign manager.
Percoco is alleged to have conspired with Steve Aiello and Joseph Gerardi (two executives of Syracuse-based COR, a development company that won high-profile construction contracts) and Peter Galbraith Kelly (of Connecticut-based Competitive Power Ventures, which sought Percoco’s help to win permits to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley).
Another defendant is Todd Howe, the lobbyist and longtime Cuomo family associate, who allegedly acted as the conduit between Percoco and the businesses. Howe already has pleaded guilty and is slated to testify this week for the prosecution.
In building their case, prosecutors have sought to show jurors and the world outside what many inside New York politics have long known: Percoco’s outsized influence and bare-knuckled tactics. And the line dividing public and private sectors blurred.
Percoco kept his swipe card and his office adjacent to Cuomo’s in the governor’s Manhattan offices. He used the office at least 68 days from May 2014 to December 2014, prosecutors say, making 837 phone calls on state phones.
“I might see him for two or three days in the office and then not see him for a long time, and then he might be there again,” Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s chief of staff, testified last week.
“Do you know what he was doing when you would see him in the office?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg asked.
“No,” Lacewell said.
“Did anyone else have use of that office during that time period?” the prosecutor continued.
“No,” Lacewell replied.
Then came the morning of Dec. 3, 2014, when Percoco used his swipe card to enter state offices, and received an email from Howe asking about a client’s request to waive a requirement to hire union workers for a lucrative job in Syracuse. Prosecutors presented records showing Percoco called his old office in Albany, then emailed Howe saying, “Stand by.” Five minutes later, Percoco phoned Howe to allegedly tell him the waiver was granted.
Andrew Kennedy, a former Cuomo economic development aide, testified that Percoco had contacted him about the labor issue.
“The conversation you recalled having with Mr. Percoco, do you remember whether he was on the campaign at the time or at the governor’s chamber?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky asked.
“I don’t recall when he came. He was still involved,” Kennedy said. “He was coming back . . . I don’t know when he officially started.”
“Did it make any difference where he was at that time?” Podolsky wondered.
“No,” Kennedy concluded.
Defense attorneys have sought to tease out whether Percoco ever actually ordered anyone to quickly advance economic projects at his behest or merely inquired about their status. The defense attorneys have prompted some witnesses to acknowledge it wouldn’t be unusual for a senior staff member to prod the bureaucracy along.
At another point in the trial, a former counsel to Cuomo said that Percoco’s permission effectively was needed before the governor’s staffers could depart for outside jobs.
“I think [the executive] chamber’s staff are free to go at any time, but I was aware that there were times when Joe’s clearance, or — I guess permission’s not the right word because there is no form of control — but people would want to run it by Joe before someone left the executive chamber,” said Seth Agata, who now runs the state’s ethics commission.
Along those lines, more than one State Capitol denizen through the years has likened the administration to “Hotel California,” where residents can check out but can never leave. Kennedy told the jury he himself had accepted a job at a state university in 2014 but had to run it by bosses first. The result?
It was “suggested that I not pursue the opportunity with the university,” Kennedy said. “Otherwise, the governor’s office would call the university and ask them to reconsider offering, providing me the job.”
Percoco even emailed Cuomo staff in November 2014 — when, technically, he wasn’t on state payroll — to berate them about the lack of a pay raise for Steven Aiello Jr., according to emails introduced in the trial. Hired by the state as a low-level staffer, he is the son of Steven Aiello, a developer, Cuomo donor and co-defendant in the trial. The father recently had complained about the son’s salary and said in an email he wasn’t being treated fairly despite being “loyal.”
In 2015, after Percoco returned to the state payroll as the governor’s top adviser, he harangued staff about this “blunder.” Though staff was upset by Percoco’s request and tone, the raise was granted.
“I think I have a bit of clout left around here,” Percoco later emailed the father.
The governor, who isn’t accused of wrongdoing, repeatedly has said he wouldn’t comment on the trial as it is ongoing. State Republican chairman Ed Cox has blasted Democrat Cuomo as “perfectly content” with “these blurred lines,” referring to Percoco.
“Mr. Percoco had no business working on any official matters or keeping his state office after he left the state payroll, yet the governor’s approval of this unethical behavior allowed him to sell his influence.”