Star government witness Todd Howe testified Monday at the corruption trial of ex-gubernatorial aide Joseph Percoco that the two were like “brothers” after three decades in the Cuomo family orbit when they hatched a scheme to trade on Percoco’s influence as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s right-hand man.
“Joe, regardless of whether he was in the campaign or in the governor’s office physically, he had the ability to pick up the phone and get things done,” Howe said. “Like that old commercial with E.F. Hutton — when E.F. Hutton speaks, everyone listens.”
Howe, 57, a cooperating witness on his first day on the stand in Manhattan federal court, laid out how he came to be the linchpin of an alleged scheme by two clients to pay more than $300,000 in bribes to Percoco — referred to by them in code as “zitti” — to buy influence for an energy company and a Syracuse developer.
In addition to Percoco, 48, of South Salem, the government has charged energy executive Peter Galbraith Kelly, 54, of Connecticut, with paying Percoco’s wife $270,000 for a low-show job to help with a power plant, and Syracuse businessmen Steve Aiello, 59, and Joe Gerardi, 58, with paying him $35,000 for help on a state-funded project.
Howe testified that the bribery allegations were the final act in a 30-year story of two friends and two Cuomos.
He said their friendship began in 1989, when he was working as an advance man and scheduler for Gov. Mario Cuomo and hired Percoco straight out of college as an aide, and continued in the 1990s when the two worked together under Andrew Cuomo when he was secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.
Through the years, he said, the two spoke almost daily. “He was as close to a brother as I’ve ever had,” Howe said as Percoco looked on, listening intently.
Percoco, Howe said, had lost his father when he was young, and Mario Cuomo filled the role of a “steady hand on Joe’s shoulder,” while Andrew became a brother who leaned on Percoco “during difficult times in Andrew’s life.”
Asked why he and Percoco called each other “Herb” in emails, Howe traced the nickname back to a joke in the tight Cuomo circle during a helicopter ride to Albany after a 1990 debate in which Howe and Mario Cuomo laughed about Conservative candidate Herb London’s toupee.
“He started calling three or four of us Herb,” Howe recalled.
Howe said he was a lobbyist in Washington in 2010 when Andrew Cuomo emerged as a leading candidate for governor, and he reoriented his work to New York to take advantage of old ties to Percoco, the campaign manager, and other old pals in the Cuomo circle poised to take high posts.
He testified that he had Kelly and the energy company, Competitive Power Ventures, lay the groundwork for help with a Hudson Valley power plant even before the election — taking Percoco on a Montauk fishing trip on which he landed a prize tuna, giving Cuomo a $25,000 campaign donation, attending a breakfast with him and offering to lend him a jet.
By 2012, Howe testified, he and Percoco both had financial troubles. Howe was overspending and wanted to make sure he didn’t lose Kelly as a client, he said, while Percoco was “close to the governor but needed outside income after buying a new house, and friendship met opportunity.
“He asked for help, and I did everything I could to help him,” Howe testified. “I wanted to be helpful to Joe personally, and I wanted Joe to help me and my clients as well.”
Howe said he pleaded guilty to eight felonies — including embezzling his law firm and cheating on his taxes — and now lives in Idaho, where he found work as a groundskeeper at a golf course, mowing greens, removing trees, digging ditches and hoping his testimony would earn leniency.
“I certainly don’t want to go to jail,” he testified. “I am hoping I don’t.”
In rulings Monday, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni spared Howe some difficult cross-examination by barring questions about “anti-Semitic” and “misogynistic” emails. She also prohibited prosecutors from playing a clip from “The Sopranos” to show the origin of the “zitti” code.
Defense lawyers say Howe is lying and portraying legitimate payments as bribes. His testimony is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.