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State readies for 5 corruption trials in 2018

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves court in

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves court in Manhattan after being sentenced on corruption-related charges on May 3, 2016. Credit: Bryan R. Smith

ALBANY — State government is bracing for a parade of corruption trials in 2018, with five cases involving powerful players going before juries at the same time that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and all 213 legislative seats are up for election.

The procession opens Jan. 22 when the trial of Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s former closest aide, opens in federal court in Manhattan. Percoco, the governor’s confidant, ex-campaign manager and sometimes political enforcer, is accused of participating in bribery schemes that effectively rigged development contracts with Cuomo campaign donors. Percoco is charged with extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and solicitation of bribes and gratuities. He has denied the charges. The governor is not accused of wrongdoing.

The trial begins less than three weeks after Cuomo will deliver his State of the State address and, along with the other cases, could cast a shadow over the legislative session and the following elections.

“Depending on what happens in the trials, the corruption parade could drive the session,” said Blair Horner, a longtime state government watchdog with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The Percoco case is just the beginning. Over the next months, the former speaker of the state Assembly, former leader of the state Senate, the former president of the State University of New York’s newest college campus and a longtime and influential political operative in Western New York will stand accused of wrongdoing ranging from bribery to extortion to fraud to illegal campaign contributions to rigged bids.

The allegations of wrongdoing prosecutors will outline include payoffs to a judge for favorable rulings, a no-show job for the son of a powerful politician, kickbacks for insurance referrals, a speedy approval for a power plant project, and a heads-up to a developer that allowed it to buy up homes in a neighborhood ahead of plans to later build a college dorm.

“The allegations often deal with ‘pay to play’: Shaking down contractors for campaign contributions,” Horner said. “We don’t know if that’s true — it’s just alleged.”

The glut of trials won’t reflect well on state government, regardless of how they turn out, an analyst said. And they could impact the public view of Cuomo, who is up for re-election to a third term and who is said to have national ambitions.

“It could shed negative light on the governor,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist, “but the bottom line is it’s not good for the state. It’s not good for Albany” because it shows corruption is an ongoing issue.

The governor has been tight-lipped about the impact of the trials, besides saying he doesn’t expect to testify in the Percoco case. Asked in a recent conference call about his “expected involvement” in the proceeding, Cuomo said only: “I don’t know. You’d have to ask the U.S. attorney.”

Two of the trials will be “do-overs”: Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre originally were found guilty of bribery and other corruption charges in 2015. A federal court vacated the convictions in 2017 based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially narrowed the definition of legal corruption.

Prosecutors now are poised to retry each case. Silver goes to court in April, Skelos in June.

Silver is accused of steering real estate developers — most notably Glenwood Management of New Hyde Park — to use either his law firm or another to which he was connected. Prosecutors say Silver pocketed $4 million in illegal kickbacks. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, extortion and money laundering. Silver contends he received perfectly legal referral fees and says there was no trade-off (a “quid pro quo” that prosecutors must prove) for legislation.

Skelos is accused of using his clout to squeeze Glenwood, Roslyn-based Physicians Reciprocal Insurers (a malpractice firm) and AbTech, a Nassau County storm water contractor, to provide jobs, fees and benefits for his son, Adam (who also is accused) in excess of $300,000, in exchange for favorable legislation. The Skeloses, who face charges of bribery, extortion and conspiracy, have denied the charges.

The Percoco case has been split into two trials: one in January that focuses on Percoco, a Connecticut energy-company executive and two Syracuse developers; and one in June that focuses on Alain Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, along with the Syracuse developers and the principals of a Buffalo construction company. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say Percoco, Kaloyeros, the companies and Todd Howe — a former lobbyist with longtime ties to Cuomo and his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo — conspired to rig bids involving mega SUNY building projects in upstate New York in exchange for kickbacks and campaign contributions. Howe already has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with investigators.

The governor has been interviewed by the U.S. attorney’s office regarding the Percoco case. But Cuomo said earlier this month he doesn’t expect to testify. Prosecutors, however, have gathered bank, telephone and email records from a wide array of Cuomo administration officials.

And in the fifth case, Steve Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman and one-time key state Senate adviser, stands accused by state and federal prosecutors of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with elections in western New York and the alleged bribing of a judge. He is next due in court in March, though a trial date hasn’t been set yet, officials said.

Eventually, analysts said, talk will get around to how to “clean up Albany.” Cuomo made it a major plank of his successful 2010 campaign and though he has signed laws to require legislators to disclose more about their outside incomes and stiffened ethics penalties, critics say the governor and lawmakers haven’t addressed the cornerstone issues such as the state’s weak campaign-finance laws.

“Everybody is against corruption — just ask them,” said Robert Spitzer, political scientist at SUNY Cortland. “But it doesn’t really get to the center of what should be done to clean up Albany.”

It’s possible, though not certain, he said, the trials might “inject the issue of corruption” into the 2018 elections and force politicians to “stake out more concrete positions on what should be done to address the problem.”

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