The government’s star witness in the corruption trial for Joseph Percoco, a former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, took the stand on Tuesday for a second day of testimony in which he portrayed Percoco as playing overlapping roles as state employee, campaign manager and private consultant.
Todd Howe, a former lobbyist with Whiteman Osterman & Hanna with longtime connections with the Cuomo family, said he worked over a period of several years to cultivate relationships between Percoco and executives from an energy company and a development group seeking to do business with the state.
Percoco is accused of taking more than $315,000 combined in bribes from Competitive Power Ventures, which sought to broker a power purchase agreement with the state to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Orange County; and from COR Development, which sought government contracts for development projects in the Syracuse area.
Percoco is one of eight defendants in the trial, who have been split into two groups to be tried separately.
The first trial group includes Percoco, Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., a former CPV executive, and former COR executives Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi.
The executives from COR paid Percoco as a consultant in 2014, while Percoco was managing Cuomo’s gubernatorial re-election campaign. Howe said he shared an office with Percoco during the campaign and that Percoco was allegedly sought to help COR deal with the “labor peace agreement” required for certain projects in the state.
During questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg, Howe has portrayed Percoco as often concerned about his personal finances. He said that while Percoco was managing Cuomo’s re-election campaign that he witnessed Percoco giving instructions to state employees via telephone.
COR, which was awarded a government contract to construct a $14.4 million “film hub” near Syracuse and a $90 million warehouse in the area, retained WOH Government Solutions, a subsidiary of Whiteman Osterman, to lobby on its behalf from 2010 to 2016, but Howe said he also received outside compensation from COR, which included an $85,000 loan that is now the subject of a lawsuit against Howe that COR filed in Onondaga County.
Howe said he provided guidance to COR executives on strategies for campaign contributions, such as advising Aiello to donate $125,000 to the governor’s campaign fund, but doing so from five different entities that do not contain COR in their names, so as not to alert the media.
Howe has pleaded guilty to eight counts for his role in the two alleged schemes, which included extortion, bribery, wire fraud and related conspiracy charges.
Defense attorneys have called Howe’s credibility into question, but Howe conceded on the stand on Tuesday that, in 2016 after a federal probe had been launched into the alleged schemes, he lied to investigators about embezzling funds from Whiteman Osterman. “I denied it to my family, I denied it to my lawyer, I denied it to basically anyone who asked about it at this point,” Howe said.
Through two days of testimony, Howe has walked the jury through email conversations taking place between the defendants from 2010 to 2016 that are laden with code words and nicknames: Percoco and Howe referred to each other as “Herb”, for example, and called payments “ziti” or “zitti,” a reference to a term that characters in the TV series “The Sopranos” used to describe gambling money in a high-stakes poker game.
“Herb, do the right thing with Braith,” Howe said in a 2011 email to Percoco, in reference to Kelly. “This goes south herb, you will have to clean out the ‘herb cave’ downstairs at the estate as I will have to move in!!!”
Unbeknownst to Kelly at the time, Percoco and Howe also referred to the executive by the less-than-flattering “fat man.”
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York, who is presiding over the case, has explained to jurors that the campaign contributions brought up in the trial were lawful and not under scrutiny in the case.
Cuomo, who is seeking a third term this year and who has been rumored to be a contender for the White House in 2020, has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case.
In addition to Echenberg, the prosecution in the case includes Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Boone, David Zhou and Matthew Podolsky. Direct examination of Howe continues on Wednesday.
Percoco’s defense team includes Schulte Roth & Zabel attorneys Barry Bohrer, Michael Yaeger, Andrew Gladstein and Abigail Coster.