In Albany, Percoco Secretly Strained to Keep the ‘Ziti’ Flowing
Posted February 6, 2018 11:30 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — It was late 2012, and Joseph Percoco was at the peak of his powers. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, he had the governor’s ear, and protected the governor’s back.
But behind the scenes, Percoco was a frenetic mess.
In granular, groveling detail, the government’s star witness in a high-level Albany corruption case described on Tuesday how Percoco continually pleaded for, and fretted about, alleged bribe money from an energy company seeking to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley.
The witness, Todd R. Howe, also described how he personally introduced the governor to two development executives now accused of bribery, using Cuomo’s love of cars — and Corvettes, in particular — as an entree.
Emails introduced on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan show that Percoco’s money worries began not long after he bought an expensive house in Westchester County. Howe, an old friend of Percoco and former aide to Cuomo, had responded to those financial concerns by arranging what prosecutors called a “low-show” job as an educational consultant for Percoco’s wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, at the energy company, Competitive Power Ventures.
“Need to pull the trigger here. Things getting bad,” Percoco wrote to Howe in November 2012 about his financial straits and finalizing the job.
“Down to the wire,” Percoco wrote again, in December, as he waited for the first check to arrive.
Howe, who was also being paid for lobbying work by CPV, sought to reassure Percoco, arranging for hand-delivery of a check for $7,500. Dozens of additional payments to Toscano-Percoco, a former schoolteacher, would follow over the next several years, paid through a third party to avoid detection, according to prosecutors.
But those payments did not end the two men’s near-constant consternation about money. In 2014, when a payment from another company was slow to come, Percoco wrote, “I have no ziti,” a nod to a reference used in “The Sopranos.” He then joked that he’d have to send his children to the backyard “with the garden hose to enjoy the summer.”
“Don’t burn the ziti,” Howe wrote to Percoco at another moment, asking the governor’s aide to smooth over possible hurt feelings from Peter Galbraith Kelly, Jr., a CPV executive who is on trial alongside Percoco. On another occasion, Howe wrote an email to Percoco about “Operation Ziti Replenishment.”
Prosecutors have charged Percoco, once one of Cuomo’s closest friends and aides, with conspiracy, extortion and solicitation of bribes. Cuomo, a Democrat seeking a third term in November, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Howe, a disgraced Washington lobbyist now working as groundskeeper in Idaho, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.
Howe’s testimony also shed light on Percoco’s alleged improper use of his influence after he left the administration for nearly eight months in 2014 to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
Despite not serving in an official government capacity, Percoco continued to come and go from the governor’s Manhattan offices, using a government swipe card, prosecutors have shown.
Howe testified on Tuesday that Percoco also continued to call members of the governor’s staff and “instruct them on various topics.”
Howe also described how he helped establish a relationship between a client and the governor’s office. He instructed the client, COR Development, a Syracuse-area construction firm, to donate to Cuomo as a way of getting in the New York state arena of big-money contracts. Two COR executives, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, were also charged and are being tried with Percoco, accused of funneling him $35,000 for several favors, including securing a raise for Aiello’s son, who was working for the state.
Howe said he introduced Aiello and Gerardi to Cuomo at a fundraiser. He then gave another COR executive a surefire icebreaker with the governor: He told him to chat with Cuomo about Corvettes. The plan worked, Howe said. “He parked himself in the center of the ballroom and they talked about Corvettes for about 35 minutes,” Howe testified.
Howe said that he also advised COR to funnel donations to Cuomo through limited liability companies that “don’t include the name ‘COR’ in them,” one email showed.
He also celebrated the fact that the company was using the so-called LLC loophole that allows hard-to-trace and practically unlimited donations to flow to political campaigns in New York state.
Howe said he did so to make sure that it would be difficult for reporters to track the donations, because “the media would make a heyday” of the donations and any state contracts COR received.
Prosecutors and the judge in the case, Judge Valerie E. Caproni, of U.S. District Court, have said that there was nothing unlawful about the donations.