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Cuomo shocked by former top aide, chief of staff testifies

Joseph Percoco exits a federal courthouse in Manhattan,

Joseph Percoco exits a federal courthouse in Manhattan, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Percoco, a former top aide to New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, is charged with using his clout in return for more than $320,000 in payoffs from a power company executive and two Syracuse developers. Credit: / Charles Eckert

The chief of staff to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo testified at former top aide Joseph Percoco’s corruption trial on Wednesday that the governor appeared shocked to learn Percoco had been paid by a lobbyist for work for private clients when the two first spoke after an FBI raid at Percoco’s home.

During three hours of testimony that highlighted the close ties between Cuomo and Percoco, staff chief Linda Lacewell said when Percoco called the morning of the 2016 raid she immediately set up a three-way call with the governor, his friend for more than 20 years.

While Percoco insisted that everything he did had been cleared by lawyers, Lacewell recalled, Cuomo expressed concern about work Percoco did on behalf of a Syracuse developer and another firm, both campaign donors, that lobbyist Todd Howe paid for with checks to Percoco’s wife.

“What?” Cuomo exclaimed when he learned of the arrangement, according to Lacewell, appearing on the second day of trial in Manhattan federal court.

Percoco, 49, of South Salem, is charged with taking more than $320,000 in payoffs from an energy executive and two Syracuse businessmen, also defendants, for using his clout as Cuomo’s right hand man to advance a planned power plant and cut red tape on a state-funded Syracuse project.

Lobbyist Howe, himself a former Cuomo aide, allegedly arranged both schemes. He is now a government witness expected to testify the power company’s payoff was a $90,000 a year “low show” job for Percoco’s wife, Lisa, and the Syracuse men had him pay $35,000 to Lisa Percoco.

The FBI raid occurred in April 2016, just months after Percoco left the Cuomo administration. Percoco’s lawyers say he arranged to legitimately work with Howe on nonstate matters in 2014, while he was running Cuomo’s campaign and not in government, and never agreed to a corrupt quid pro quo.

Cuomo is not charged with wrongdoing, but prosecutors say state witnesses will testify that Percoco could lean on them because of his closeness to Cuomo, and Lacewell’s testimony suggested how hard it would be for the governor to distance himself from the case.

She noted, for example, that Percoco told her and Cuomo during the phone call that in addition to seizing materials relating to his wife’s work, the FBI agents had seized a laptop containing Cuomo’s tax and personal financial information, and materials about his family and children.

“He was very much trusted by the governor, including handling such sensitive matters,” said Lacewell, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who joined Cuomo when he was serving as attorney general.

Prosecutors had her explain how Cuomo’s and Percoco’s offices were connected by a series of inner doors, and detail the broad portfolio the governor gave him starting in 2011 — from labor issues and intergovernment and legislative relations to appointments, scheduling, and staff raises.

When asked if Percoco worked more in New York or Albany, Lacewell said it all depended on where Cuomo was working. “Usually he was wherever the governor was going to be,” she said. “If the governor was traveling, usually Mr. Percoco traveled ahead of or with the governor.”

Part of Percoco’s defense is that he began working for Howe clients when he left the administration in 2014 to run Cuomo’s campaign, and unexpectedly returned because the governor needed him.

But Lacewell said he was never really gone, occasionally showing up in his old city and Albany executive chamber offices after he quit. They were never assigned to anyone else, she testified.

Lacewell also recalled how, over a series of calls after the FBI raid, while insisting he had done nothing wrong, Percoco admitted that the circuitous payment to his wife in the arrangement that sparked Cuomo’s reaction had seemed unusual, but was insisted on by Howe.

“He’s cute that way,” Percoco said of the lobbyist.

Lacewell’s testimony resumes on Thursday.

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