A trial of alleged corruption in the inner sanctum of New York government began in Manhattan federal court Tuesday as prosecutors accused Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s former top aide, Joseph Percoco, of wielding power that was a virtual stand-in for the governor’s own in return for bribes.
“Getting a call from Percoco was like getting a call from the governor himself,” prosecutor Robert Boone told jurors during opening arguments in the first of several recent Albany corruption trials to focus on the executive branch. “If he asked you to do something, you did it.”
Percoco, 48, of South Salem, a longtime Cuomo family insider and political enforcer who served as the governor’s executive deputy secretary until 2016, is charged with using his clout in return for more than $320,000 in payoffs from a power company executive and two Syracuse developers.
Prosecutors say ex-lobbyist Todd Howe, a former Cuomo insider himself and Percoco friend who is cooperating, will testify that he helped set up the bribes — called “zitti” in emails the two exchanged — and that in return Percoco aided the energy company on a planned New York plant and helped the developers cut through red tape on state-funded projects.
“This case is about corruption, the old-fashioned kind where a government official takes money from businessmen in return for favors,” prosecutor Robert Boone told jurors. “Percoco decided to sell his power and betray the people of New York in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Percoco lawyer Barry Bohrer offered a different portrayal, describing his client as an up-from-the-bootstraps striver from Staten Island whose loyalty to Cuomo — with whom he shared a “pugnacious” demeanor and “passion” for public service — made him a powerful right-hand man.
But he never stepped over the line, Bohrer told jurors. “Joe Percoco is a human being,” he said. “He’s not perfect. He’s made mistakes. But these mistakes are not criminal acts . . . that should brand him as a criminal for the rest of his life.”
And along with the lawyers for co-defendants Peter Galbraith Kelly, 53, the power company official, and Syracuse developers Stephen Aiello, 59, and Joseph Gerardi, 58, Bohrer also blasted Howe, the star government witness, as a liar and con man who duped the government into believing that legitimate arrangements were criminal.
Howe’s middle name, Bohrer told jurors, is Ransom. “Todd Ransom Howe has a below zero interest in the truth,” he said. “ . . . Todd Ransom Howe has kidnapped the truth and the ransom he seeks is a lenient sentence.”
Boone said Percoco started to line his pockets as a result of a cash squeeze after he bought a pricey Westchester County house in 2012 and his wife, Lisa, quit her teaching job, and arranged for Kelly to hire Lisa for $7,500 a month — nearly $300,000 over three years — for a “low show” job developing an elementary school energy education program.
“It was greed, pure and simple,” the prosecutor said. “Percoco was a very powerful man but as a long-term government employee he was not a rich man. So he decided to sell the most valuable thing he had — his job.”
Bohrer didn’t deny Lisa Percoco got the money, but he said it was a legitimate job and Kelly did it out of friendship. He said Percoco gave minor help to Kelly — helping set up meetings, telling him who to see — but he didn’t exercise the formal government power as part of a quid pro quo that would have been a crime.
“He did favors,” Bohrer said. “There’s nothing wrong with favors for a friend if they’re legitimate . . . It was not a corrupt bargain to give Lisa Percoco a teaching job.”
Boone also said the prosecution would produce evidence that Kelly and his company, Competitive Power Ventures, kept Lisa Percoco out of brochures and pictures publicizing the energy program, and paid her through another company to keep her role secret.
But Kelly’s lawyer, Daniel Gitner, who like Bohrer insisted the arrangement was innocent, said the secrecy wasn’t a sign that it was a bribe — only that Kelly and other officials at the company knew it would look suspicious if it became public.
“The optics would be bad,” Gitner said, “so the company didn’t make it easy to figure out.”
The trial resumes on Wednesday, with testimony expected from Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s chief of staff.