Sixteen months ago, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s top aide, Joseph Percoco, was indicted in one of a string of Albany corruption scandals, then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he wasn’t looking for any plea deals.
“I really hope that there is a trial in this case,” Bharara said at a news conference unveiling the charges, “so that all New Yorkers can see, in gory detail, what their state government has been up to.”
Bharara was fired by President Donald Trump last year, but his wish is about to come true: The high-profile trial of Percoco and three co-defendants on charges that he was bribed to exercise influence on behalf of a power company and Syracuse developers starts Monday in a federal court in Manhattan.
Expected to last four to six weeks, the trial will have plenty of seamy detail about backroom dealings, court filings suggest — from jokes about wanting more “zitti” in alleged coded references to bribes taken from “The Sopranos,” to using clout to influence state agencies and routing over $300,000 in alleged payoffs to Percoco through his wife.
And, although Cuomo isn’t charged with wrongdoing, his reelection campaign and national ambitions may form a backdrop to a case in which both lead defendant Percoco and the star government witness, lobbyist Todd Howe, the conduit for the alleged bribes, were trading off long relationships with him.
Indeed, while Cuomo is not expected to be a witness, he may make cameo appearances in testimony, including one instance where prosecutors say Howe and Percoco used him as a prop to show their clout by having “gov” drop by during a meeting with the Syracuse developers in the executive chamber.
“That would be great!” Howe allegedly emailed in response to Percoco’s suggestion. “Worth another crate of Zitti!”
Percoco, 48, of South Salem, is a Cuomo family insider dating back to Mario Cuomo’s governorship — a “third son” who came to serve as Andrew Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, with a reputation as a political enforcer with an office just steps away from the governor’s.
Prosecutors say Percoco faced financial pressure in 2012 when his wife quit her teaching job and the couple bought an $800,000 Westchester County house, and he turned to lobbyist Howe, 57 — an old friend and ex-Mario Cuomo aide himself who had hired Percoco and later worked for Andrew Cuomo in Washington.
Howe, in his first public testimony since pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate in 2016, is expected to lay out what he says was a series of payoffs to line Percoco’s pockets from Howe clients who were already Cuomo contributors and wanted favors from the administration.
One scheme, the government says, involved co-defendant Peter Galbraith Kelly, 53, of Connecticut, an official with an energy company that wanted help on state issues, including emission credits and a power-purchase agreement.
Kelly, according to Howe, agreed to hire Percoco’s wife for a “low-show” consulting job designing an energy curriculum for elementary students at $7,500 a month, and ultimately funneled $287,000 to Percoco through her.
A second bribery scheme, Kelly is expected to testify, centered on Syracuse developers Stephen Aiello, 59, and Joseph Gerardi, 58, both of Fayetteville, who paid $35,000 through a shell company formed by Howe, and got help with labor and budgetary issues on state-funded development projects as well as a raise for Aiello’s son, who worked for Cuomo.
Howe and his blunt emails pursuing “zitti” with Percoco are expected to be the centerpiece of the trial, but prosecutors have also signaled testimony will involve several high-profile administration figures and focus on Percoco’s power over officials the government says were “pressured.”
While it promises to be a bruising portrayal of corruption occurring under the governor’s nose, political experts say that as long as Cuomo himself isn’t implicated, the impact will probably be minimal given his favorable poll numbers.
“The mere association plus the fact the governor was at least tangentially involved is grist for the news media and public discussion,” said Doug Muzzio, who teaches politics at Baruch College. “It’s got to be damaging. But what gets damaged? . . . My gut tells me it’s going to be marginal.”
Percoco’s lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment, but pretrial filings cite one possible glitch in the case — some accusations focus on a period in 2014 when Percoco temporarily left to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Prosecutors will have to show he was an agent of the administration able to exercise official power in that period.
In addition to attacks on Howe’s credibility, defense filings also argue that there was no illegal “quid pro quo” in the case — that all the matters Percoco is accused of intervening in were resolved on their virtues, not because of bribes.
“The government’s theory is that officials acted as they did due to unlawful ‘pressure,’ ” Percoco lawyer Barry Bohrer said in one filing. “The defense is that there was no such pressure and that officials acted as they did because they believed in the merits.”
Lawyers for Kelly and Aiello also did not respond to discuss the case. Milton Williams, Gerardi’s lawyer, said in a brief statement that his client looked forward to the opportunity “to vindicate his name and reputation.”