Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sought to distance himself Wednesday from his former top aide who was convicted in a corruption scheme a day earlier, calling it a “total aberration.”
But watchdog groups and Republicans contended the Democrat was “misdiagnosing” ethical problems exposed by the trial and offering “simply not credible” rationalizations about one key issue.
Cuomo, who is up for re-election this year, hit the political low point of his eight-year tenure when Joseph Percoco, his brother-like confidant and political enforcer, was convicted on fraud and bribery charges, observers said. Percoco was convicted of accepting bribes at times when he was off the government payroll and worked as the governor campaign manager — from companies seeking to land state contracts.
Cuomo said the outcome was “sad and shocking,” while saying he respected the jury’s verdict. He said the alleged “behavior violates everything my administration is about.”
“We strive for total integrity and this is a total aberration from the people who work in the administration,” the governor told reporters. The governor grew testy when asked about Republican attempts to tie him to the scandal, calling it “political garbage.”
After an “exhaustive” investigation and trial, Cuomo said: “The governor’s involvement was never mentioned. His name was never mentioned.”
Cuomo argued that the “No. 1” ethics change needed in light of the trial was a ban on lawmakers’ and public employees’ outside income, even though that wasn’t the issue in the Percoco case.
The Democrat’s assertions didn’t gain much traction with good-government groups.
“It’s a total misdiagnosis,” Blair Horner, a watchdog with the New York Public Interest Research Group. He said the issue wasn’t about the legislative branch but rather a “huge pay-to-play scandal in which members of the executive branch were engaged in making themselves wealthier and shaking down contractors for campaign contributions.”
“People somehow knew they were supposed to hire Todd Howe, because he was close to the governor, to get things done in the executive branch,” Horner said, referring to an ex-lobbyist who acted as the conduit between contractors and Percoco, his longtime friend, and who accepted a plea bargain to testify for the prosecution.
Republicans also focused on a side issue raised in the trial: Percoco used his government office 68 times and made 837 phone calls in 2014 when he was off the public payroll and managing Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Prosecutors produced evidence that Percoco contacted and bossed around state employees on behalf of private clients during that period, a possible violation of state ethics laws.
The governor said Percoco used the office in 2014 to handle “transition” work but acknowledged the evidence suggested “other work” was being done — a reference to Percoco helping his alleged co-conspirators land government contracts.
That explanation is “preposterous,” said Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), a gubernatorial candidate.
“It is an insult to the intelligence of New Yorkers,” the senator said. “Mr. Percoco — in the office adjoining the governor’s — made 837 phone calls over 68 days . . . spitball range of the governor’s desk. To call that ‘transition’ work is simply not credible.”
State Republican Chairman Ed Cox added: “The truth is that Governor Cuomo knew Joe Percoco was working for private clients, yet allowed him to continue acting as his chief enforcer and employee of the state, where he was permitted to work just steps from the governor in his executive chamber on official state business …” allegedly on a client’s behalf.