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Percoco defense downplays ‘ziti’ talk in closings

Joe Percoco, former top aide to Gov. Andrew

Joe Percoco, former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, leaves U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in Manhattan. Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

Enough with the “ziti.”

A defense lawyer for former top Andrew M. Cuomo aide Joe Percoco blasted prosecutors during summation at his corruption trial Wednesday for trying to cover up problems with their star witness by over-relying on emails discussing “ziti”, an alleged Sopranos-based code for bribery.

“They like this ‘ziti,’” Percoco attorney Barry Bohrer told jurors in Manhattan federal court. “ . . . But it’s not the language of criminals just because someone watches the Sopranos and picks up language from the Sopranos. Millions of people would be wearing jumpsuits.”

Percoco, 48, of South Salem in Westchester County, is charged with taking more than $300,000 in bribes set up by ex-lobbyist Todd Howe, the government cooperator who said he arranged the payments from clients Peter Kelly, an energy company official, and Syracuse developers Steve Aiello and Joe Gerardi.

But Howe, during a week of testimony, admitted he was a lifelong liar and deadbeat who had stiffed creditors, cheated a bank and embezzled from his law firm. To the government’s dismay, he was jailed during his testimony after apparently admitting to a previously unknown fraud.

Prosecutors have since tried to steer away from Howe by hammering on his emails with Percoco, including discussions of how to get “ziti” — a slang Percoco allegedly picked up from watching “The Sopranos”.

But Bohrer dismissed the phrase as a joke among friends, used more often by Howe than Percoco, that referred to legitimate salary and fees.

“They spent oodles of time talking about ziti,” he said. “You can’t convict someone of a crime because of how they talk.”

Instead, Bohrer became the fourth defense lawyer to close by tying ex-lobbyist Howe to prosecutors like an anchor, arguing there was no case without him and no reliable case based on “Howe’s house of lies.”

“Mr. Howe has broken agreement after agreement after agreement,” Bohrer said, reciting Howe’s litany of unpaid bills to gardeners, banks and repairmen. “So what does the government do? They offer him another agreement.”

Percoco is accused of getting $35,000 from the Syracuse developers to do them favors, and nearly $300,000 from Kelly, whose company hired Percoco’s wife for a “low show” $90,000-a-year part time teaching job, in return for help on a power plant and an interstate pollution-credit deal.

But Bohrer argued Lisa Percoco’s job was legitimate, and said the claim that Percoco did official favors was full of gaps, inflating little more than arranging meetings and introductions into a bribery conspiracy that miscast Percoco as an all-powerful aide with vast authority over everyone.

“Apparently no one is bigger than Joe Percoco,” Bohrer said. “That’s an exaggeration. That’s a stretch. That’s Todd Howe.”

The charge relating to a pollution credit deal, Bohrer told jurors, rested on a single email — in which Howe asked Percoco to weigh in, and Percoco said he was busy with a family matter, urging Howe to ask state operations director Howard Glaser, who handled energy matters, to help.

“Those words are now submitted to you as an instruction? As a directive? Come on,” Bohrer said. “This is the basis of a criminal offense? This is a reach. This is an example of a mistaken prosecution.”

The prosecution rebuttal is scheduled for Thursday morning, followed by jury instructions and the start of deliberations. The trial began on Jan. 23.

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