Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s one-time top adviser Joseph Percoco was convicted Tuesday on three counts of soliciting and taking bribes by a Manhattan federal court jury after an eight-week trial.
The testimony shed a sometimes harsh spotlight on Cuomo’s administration and how Albany does business.
Despite a mixed verdict on the eighth day of deliberations that included acquittals on extortion charges, Percoco will face up to 50 years in prison at sentencing, and was quickly denounced by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman for selling his “sacred obligation” to honestly serve New Yorkers.
“As every schoolchild knows, but he chose to disregard,” Berman said, “government officials who sell their influence to select insiders violate the basic tenets of a democracy.”
Cuomo, in a statement issued three hours after the verdict, expressed sympathy for the young daughters of his old friend, right-hand man and former campaign manager, but echoed prosecutor Berman’s condemnation of Percoco’s behavior.
“There is no higher calling than public service, and integrity is paramount,” the governor said. “ . . . The verdict demonstrated that these ideals have been violated by someone I knew for a long time. That is personally painful. However, we must learn from what happened and put additional safeguards in place to secure the public trust.”
Although Cuomo wasn’t charged with wrongdoing, good government advocates said the case — piled on top of recent trials of former legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver — painted an ugly picture of Capitol politics.
“This is a damning, damning indictment of his administration,” John Kaehny, executive director of the group Reinvent Albany, told reporters outside the Manhattan federal courthouse.
The verdict followed five weeks of testimony on charges that Percoco, 48, of South Salem, got more than $300,000 in bribes set up by lobbyist Todd Howe, the star government witness, from his clients, co-defendants Peter Galbraith Kelly, an energy executive, and Steve Aiello and Joe Gerardi, Syracuse developers.
Kelly allegedly had his company, Competitive Power Ventures, hire Percoco’s wife Lisa for a $90,000-a-year “low-show” job to get help on a Hudson Valley power plant and a pollution-credit pact with New Jersey. The Syracuse men allegedly paid $35,000 for Percoco to help cut red tape on two state-funded projects, and push for a raise for Aiello’s son, who worked for Cuomo.
The verdict could further muddy Cuomo’s re-election campaign, along with a companion trial in June that will focus on SUNY official Alan Kaloyeros and corruption in upstate development projects.
In addition to Percoco, star federal witness Howe had ties of his own to Cuomo dating back 30 years.Over a week of testimony, Howe detailed corrupt dealings with Percoco who sat just steps away from Cuomo’s office, described access to several other officials, and painted an unflattering picture of Cuomo losing his temper at one meeting with a donor.
The ex-lobbyist also told jurors about Cuomo’s attendance at a fundraiser in a showroom full of Corvettes to raise $125,000 in untraceable contributions, while prosecutors offered evidence that Percoco exercised power and was allowed to use his state office near the governor’s even after quitting the government to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
The trial was a roller-coaster ride at times. Howe said he hatched the plans with longtime friend Percoco to collect bribes — or “ziti,” slang from “The Sopranos” the two used in emails — as a way for Percoco to profit from Howe’s clients while Howe impressed them with access to Cuomo’s top man.
He told jurors he had changed, now truth-telling to earn leniency. But his colorful yarn was followed by a withering cross-examination, in which he admitted embezzling $1 million, bank theft, stiffing hordes of creditors as a chronic deadbeat and a credit card fraud attempt that led to his arrest mid-trial.
Prosecutors relied on records and emails to try to buttress Howe’s credibility, and called a parade of mid-level officials to testify about Percoco’s power and influence in the Cuomo administration, and describe contacts on matters of interest to Kelly and the developers. But only one witness said he was “pressured.”
Once deliberations started, three jurors asked to be excused and the panel twice announced it was deadlocked. After U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ordered them to keep working for a second time Monday, the jury asked about returning a partial verdict Tuesday morning, and then delivered it an hour later.
Percoco was found guilty of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud — taking bribes for official acts — in each scheme, and soliciting bribes from Kelly, the energy executive. But he was found not guilty on two extortion counts and soliciting bribes from the Syracuse men.
Known as Cuomo’s enforcer and resident tough guy, he was stoic when the verdict was delivered. Outside court, Percoco said he was “disappointed” and hadn’t spoken to Cuomo — “I just walked out of the building” — while his lawyer Barry Bohrer traced the outcome to public attitudes.
“It’s a difficult time and place to be trying a case involving Albany politics,” said Bohrer. “We think the jury verdict is a reflection of that.” Caproni set Percoco’s sentencing for June 11.
On the other defendants, jurors deadlocked on both a conspiracy and a bribe-taking charge against Kelly, who had claimed he got Lisa Percoco a job due to friendship and not as a bribe. They acquitted Gerardi on all charges, and convicted Aiello only of conspiring to bribe Percoco.
Both had claimed they didn’t even know Howe hired Percoco to do work for them. Prosecutors had no comment on retrying Kelly.
Jurors declined to meet with reporters after the verdict, and mostly declined to comment except to say they were glad it was over as they scattered outside court.
With Matthew Chayes