Ex-lobbyist Todd Howe described how top Gov. Andrew Cuomo aide Joe Percoco helped run the government when he was a campaign manager and helped arrange fundraisers with cloaked donors while working for the state, in testimony Tuesday at Percoco’s federal bribery trial.
Howe, a star prosecution witness and one-time Cuomo family insider in his second day on the stand, said he shared an office with old friend Percoco while he was running Cuomo’s 2014 re-election and heard first hand how his closeness to the governor overrode his departure from his state post.
“I witnessed Joe pick up the phone and call the governor’s staff on many occasions,” testified Howe, who “volunteered” to help the campaign while working as a lobbyist. “On a few instances I saw him talk to state employees and instruct them on various topics.”
But a year earlier, he testified, he emailed Percoco, then Cuomo’s deputy executive secretary, to get the OK for a fundraiser in a garage filled with Corvettes put on by client COR Development, that would kick in five $25,000 donations from so-called “LLC” subsidiaries whose names did not include “COR.”
“This was a pretty big chunk of money,” Howe explained. “I was concerned because COR was on the threshold of starting to do business with the state . . . The media would make a heyday out of COR was contributing $125,000 and was now doing state work.”
Percoco, 48, of South Salem, is charged with taking more than $300,000 in bribes from three Howe clients, an energy executive and two Syracuse developers who owned COR., in return for using his clout as Cuomo’s right-hand man to cut red tape and steer state decision-making.
Part of the Cuomo circle along with Howe since the 1980s, Percoco served as the governor’s top aide from 2011 till 2014, left to run the re-election campaign, and then resumed his duties from late 2014 until late 2015.
Highlighting Percoco’s power, Howe testified that at least three times Percoco had blocked different aides with “personal” ties to Cuomo from leaving the administration for outside jobs, apparently at Cuomo’s direction.
“The governor did not want these three leaving, and that was a role Joe played where he was enforcing what the governor wanted, which was for those three not to leave,” Howe testified.
After describing Monday how he and Percoco began trading on their close ties to Andrew Cuomo and his father Mario, the former New York governor, in 2011 and outlining the scheme, on Tuesday Howe walked jurors through several years of email exchanges about their efforts to keep Howe’s clients paying fees and bribes.
In the colorful exchanges Howe and Percoco chatted like a pair of frat boys, allegedly using the word “ziti” as code for bribes, with subject lines like “Don’t Burn the Ziti!!!” and mutual pep talks about “ziti in the oven,” how to “keep the ziti flowing” and “big Zitti dinner coming.”
When Howe said the code was taken from The Sopranos, prosecutor Janis Echenberg asked who came up with it. “Joe did,” Howe answered.
One of their projects was to help secure a state agreement to purchase power from a Hudson Valley power plant represented by co-defendant Peter Galbraith Kelly, who Howe and Percoco mocked as “fat man” in their emails.
In 2013, Kelly was worrying about the status of the deal. “Get the jumper cables out of the state rig, fat man is down for the count,” Howe wrote Percoco, who responded, “Heading to Home Depot to buy some 4x8 sheets of plywood to build the pine box for fat man.”
And in 2014, as the two lamented delays in getting COR to pay for Percoco’s help, Percoco – allegedly desperate for money, sardonically e-mailed Howe on vacation, calling his friend “Herb,” a nickname used by Cuomo insiders.
“I have no ziti herb, man,” he wrote. “But…enjoy your vacation….I will send my kids in the backyard with the garden hose.”
Testimony in the trial resumes on Wednesday.