Star government witness Todd Howe tried to defraud his credit card company for a $604 Waldorf Astoria hotel stay during a trip to meet with prosecutors just weeks after promising not to commit further crimes, Howe admitted Thursday at former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco’s trial.
The damaging admission climaxed a second day of rough cross examination in Manhattan federal court for ex-lobbyist Howe, whose credibility is critical to prosecution claims that he guided more than $300,000 in bribes from two lobbying clients to old friend Percoco, Cuomo’s right-hand man.
Howe, who admitted on Wednesday that he was a serial deadbeat who stiffed countless creditors over two decades, agreed in 2016 to become a cooperating witness, pleaded guilty to the bribery scheme and embezzling nearly $1 million from his law firm, and promised to keep his nose clean.
When defense lawyer Daniel Gitner first challenged his $600-a-night Waldorf stay while meeting with prosecutors in 2016 as an example of extravagant spending despite his agreement to pay restitution, Howe first brushed it off, saying he had gotten a “deal” and only paid a couple hundred dollars.
Gitner, representing a former Howe client who is charged with bribery in the case, showed him a receipt. “When you just told this jury you got a great deal, that was false, correct?” he asked.
Howe said he was confused. “I know I’ve gotten great deals there on the internet,” he said. “For whatever reason, this is what it was.”
Gitner then asked him if he had called Capital One, his credit card company, in October 2016 — the month after agreeing to always tell the truth and commit no more crimes — to deny both staying at the Waldorf and taking Acela trips from his Washington, D.C. home to New York, asking them to take $1,700 off his bill.
“I don’t recall that,” Howe said — until Gitner showed him a transcript of the phone call and said, “You lied to your credit card company about staying at the Waldorf . . . in an attempt to get your card improperly credited, correct?”
“Correct,” admitted Howe.
During two days of cross, expected to continue next week, Howe has fared better in questioning about his dealings with Percoco, with no glaring “gotcha” moments shaking his insistence that the Cuomo adviser did favors for an energy company and a Syracuse developer that lined his pockets.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni pressed defense lawyers to focus more on the substantive charges and resist overkill on his history as a liar and deadbeat who stiffed relatives, banks and countless vendors, saying “it’s beyond me” why the defendants did business with him.
But in one new matter Thursday, defense lawyers questioned Howe about five different incidents in which he rented cars from different companies — Hertz, Avis, Budget — that ended in disputes about whether they had been returned, only to be found days or weeks after they were due back.
Gitner asked Howe if it was a “scam” to get free days — threatening to sue the rental companies if they charged him for the missing time. Howe, who pledged to jurors that he had stopped lying, insisted that he was so busy and traveled so much, he sometimes forgot where he left a car.
He also noted that the dispute with Hertz hadn’t destroyed their relationship. “I’m sure if I’m as bad as you’re depicting me, I wouldn’t be a Platinum member today,” he said.
The trial resumes on Monday.