Prosecutors took six minutes to even mention the name of their damaged star witness Todd Howe during closing arguments Tuesday in the bribery trial of former top governor’s aide Joe Percoco, and then argued that his “sleazy” character fit right in with a corrupt Albany scheme.
Howe spent more than a week on the witness stand, but Assistant U.S. Attorney David Zhou urged the jury instead to focus on emails from Percoco, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former right-hand man, in which he relentlessly pushed Howe for more “ziti” — slang for money in the TV series “The Sopranos.”
“You know exactly what Joe Percoco was asking for when he asked for ziti,” Zhou said. “He was demanding cash bribes . . . This is not how honest public servants talk. This is how criminals talk.”
Longtime Cuomo insider Percoco, 48, of South Salem in Westchester County, is accused of taking more than $300,000 in bribes set up by ex-lobbyist Howe from clients — co-defendants Peter Galbraith Kelly, an energy executive, and Syracuse developers Steve Aiello and Joe Gerardi — in exchange for official favors.
Howe, a Percoco friend and former Cuomo aide cooperating with prosecutors in hope of leniency, admitted under cross-examination to being a lifelong deadbeat who cheated creditors, a bank and his law firm. He was jailed during cross examination after appearing to confess to a previously unknown fraud.
As experts had predicted after Howe’s arrest, Zhou told the jury the star witness wasn’t really that important, and that defense lawyers’ “obsession” with him was an effort to fool the jury into ignoring the emails of Percoco and the men who allegedly bribed him.
“You don’t need an insider’s view to convict these defendants,” Zhou said. “They convict themselves.”
Zhou also tried to turn Howe’s bad behavior back on the defendants, arguing that Howe was inserted into the case by their decision to use him as a middleman for corrupt deals.
“The government didn’t choose Todd Howe,” Zhou said. “The defendants chose him. And it makes sense. Who else would want to do such a sleazy job? . . . You know exactly why the defendants got in bed with Todd Howe. They knew what kind of person Todd Howe was.”
Defense lawyers, however, resisted the effort to sideline Howe. Syracuse defendants Aiello and Gerardi, accused of paying Percoco $35,000, had written checks to Howe, their lawyers said, and there was no evidence they knew he would pass money to Percoco except for Howe’s testimony.
“Make no mistake, the government’s case is heavily leveraged on Todd Howe,” said Gerardi lawyer Milton Williams.
Aiello’s lawyer, Steve Coffey, called Howe “a walking, talking reasonable doubt.”
Kelly, an executive with Competitive Power Ventures, is accused of bribing Percoco to help with a planned power plant by hiring his wife, Lisa Percoco, for a $90,000 a year “low show” job designing and occasionally teaching an energy education outreach class for elementary students.
Zhou pointed out to jurors that over two years, she had taught only 33 brief classes to earn her $90,000 annual salary. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he told them, “you have put more time into this trial than Lisa Percoco put into her $90,000 a year job.”
But Kelly lawyer Daniel Gitner said his client and Percoco were friends and the job was provided as a “favor” to help Percoco with financial problems. Only Howe, he said, had put a corrupt gloss on an innocent arrangement.
“They essentially tried to whitewash him out of the trial today,” Gitner said. “On the critical question of whether there was a corrupt agreement . . . the government has nothing but Todd Howe’s word, and they now run from him.”
Gitner’s summation is scheduled to continue Wednesday, followed by Percoco’s lawyer and a government rebuttal. The trial began Jan. 23.