ALBANY, N.Y. – For decades, Joseph Percoco was among the most loyal aides and confidants to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, so close to his family that the governor once likened him to a brother.
This week, he faces trial in New York City on federal charges that he used that relationship to collect a fortune in bribes from two companies doing business with the state.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in a case that has already proven to be a source of personal pain and political embarrassment for Cuomo, a Democrat and possible presidential candidate in 2020 who came into office vowing to do something about Albany’s corrupt culture.
While Cuomo is not accused of wrongdoing and isn’t expected to testify, the charges against Percoco have damaged both his image as a reformer and one of his signature policy initiatives, the investment of billions of dollars in public money in to upstate economic development programs.
Percoco, and others, are accused of enriching themselves by selling their influence to companies involved in those efforts.
“If you asked people `are you proud of our Albany government?’ you wouldn’t get a lot of people to answer yes,” said Bill Samuels, a longtime progressive activist and advocate for ethics reforms. “Cuomo has had eight years to change this. Where is his legacy? The public is so inured to these trials they’ve given up.”
Percoco’s ties to the Cuomo family go back to his service as a teenager for the governor’s father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo. He was involved in Andrew Cuomo’s first, failed run for governor in 2002, joined his staff when he was elected Attorney General in 2006 and then helped him win the governor’s office in 2010.
As Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, Percoco was a gruff political operative known for his intimidating manner. He left state employment in 2014 to lead Cuomo’s re-election campaign and briefly rejoined the administration that same year before taking a job as a vice president at Madison Square Garden.
At his father’s funeral in 2015 Andrew Cuomo called Percoco “my father’s third son, who sometimes I think he loved the most.”
Prosecutors say Percoco sold his influence in the halls of power by taking more than $315,000 from 2012 through 2016 from a Syracuse real estate development company, COR Development, and Competitive Power Ventures, an energy company looking to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley.
In exchange, prosecutors said, Percoco promised to help the two companies with their business with the state. Competitive Power Ventures wanted to sell power to the state, while COR wanted to win state construction projects related to economic development efforts in western New York. Executives from both companies are among those charged in the case.
Percoco has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Barry Bohrer, has dismissed the charges as “an overreach of classic proportions.”
Percoco has acknowledged accepting money from the companies, but said he did so legally as a private-sector consultant, while he was with Cuomo’s campaign organization.
Cuomo has said that while Percoco told him he might work as a consultant, he did not say who his clients would be.
The U.S. attorney who originally brought the charges against Percoco, Preet Bharara, was fired by President Donald Trump last year in a nationwide purge of federal prosecutors.
It will be the first major prosecution supervised by his interim replacement, Geoffrey Berman, who was appointed to the job this month pending a formal nomination to the U.S. Senate.
Bharara had said the allegations against Percoco were indicative of a “cauldron of corruption” in Albany. More than 30 lawmakers have left office since 2000 facing ethical or criminal allegations. Bharara’s prosecutors won corruption convictions against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, before both were granted new trials. Bharara also investigated Cuomo after he abruptly shut down an anti-corruption commission but determined there was no evidence of a crime.
Percoco’s trial is expected to feature testimony from another former Cuomo aide, Todd Howe, who worked as a consultant for both COR Development and Competitive Power Ventures.
Prosecutors said Howe set up bank accounts and a shell company to funnel bribes, including payments to Percoco’s wife. She was not charged in the case.
Howe pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery, wire and tax fraud.
Several other people are also charged in the case. They include five executives at COR Development and Buffalo construction contractor LPCiminelli as well as Competitive Power Ventures executive Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr. and Alain Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute who led many of Cuomo’s efforts to boost high-tech investment in New York.
The case has been split into two trials, with the second set to begin in June.
Cuomo told reporters last month that he doesn’t expect to be called to testify at Percoco’s trial, which could last several weeks.
Shortly after Percoco’s arrest Cuomo said he was glad his father wasn’t alive to witness his friend’s alleged act of betrayal.
“It would have broken his heart,” he said.
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