National News

Percoco’s Improper Use of State Office Was for ‘Transition Matters,’ Cuomo Says

Posted March 14, 2018 10:39 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — In his first public appearance after the corruption conviction of a former top aide, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acknowledged he had known that the aide was using government offices while working for the governor’s 2014 campaign team.

The aide, Joseph Percoco, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday of accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from executives pursuing state contracts. Prosecutors had cast Percoco as a figure of almost unmatched power, who — until the trial — flouted state ethics rules and federal laws with impunity.

As an example of that impunity, prosecutors introduced swipe card records that showed Percoco, who left state employment for eight months in 2014 to manage Cuomo’s re-election campaign, continuing to enter and exit the governor’s Manhattan office. State laws prohibit the use of taxpayer-funded resources for campaign purposes.

Cuomo’s public schedules indicate he was frequently in the office at the same time. The governor’s office declined to comment throughout the trial. But during a question-and-answer session with reporters Wednesday, after attending a school walkout in Manhattan, Cuomo seemed to acknowledge he had been aware of Percoco’s presence.

“When he left state government, he would come back into the office to handle transition matters,” Cuomo said of Percoco.

He continued: “He was there for a very long time, he was in an important position, and he would come back and he was handling the transition. Which is fine. But there should be no other work done from a government office besides that transition work.”

Asked to clarify if he knew Percoco was doing work on behalf of the state government at the time, Cuomo replied, “I believed he was doing transition work, yes.”

State Republicans, who had accused the governor, a Democrat, of condoning and even abetting violations of state ethics law by Percoco, seized on his comments Wednesday as further proof of his dishonesty.

Edward F. Cox, chairman of the state Republican Party, called Cuomo’s remarks an “Oscar-worthy performance.” State Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Republican who is seeking his party’s nomination to run against Cuomo this fall, called Cuomo’s explanation of Percoco’s presence in the office “preposterous” and “an insult to the intelligence of New Yorkers.”

Prosecutors’ records showed there were 837 calls made from Percoco’s office phone over 68 days while he was working on the campaign.

“To call that ‘transition’ work is simply not credible,” DeFrancisco said.

Questions about Cuomo’s knowledge of the alleged crimes loomed over the trial. The government’s star witness, Todd R. Howe, a disgraced Albany lobbyist, described Cuomo as a mercurial, volatile figure; several witnesses said they understood Percoco to speak with the governor’s authority.

Cuomo told reporters Wednesday that he had not been implicated in the trial at all, despite Republicans’ efforts to link his name to Percoco’s.

“There was absolutely no suggestion ever made that I had anything to do with anything,” he said, adding that anyone who had followed the trial would see that “the governor’s involvement was never mentioned. His name was never mentioned.”

Although prosecutors did not accuse Cuomo any wrongdoing, his name surfaced often at the trial. In one striking exchange, a prosecutor asked Howe whether he had ever suggested that federal officials look into Cuomo.

“Did you ever tell the government representatives that Andrew Cuomo deserves attention and scrutiny and is a bully?” the prosecutor, Robert Boone, asked. Howe at first said he did not recall using those words, but when Boone pointed him to a document of his conversation with government agents in 2016, he said he remembered.

In addition to training a spotlight on Cuomo in a re-election year, the trial also revived questions about ethics oversight in Albany in general, and halfhearted efforts — by both the Legislature and Cuomo — to strengthen it. In his comments on Wednesday, Cuomo said the strongest measure of ethics reform would be to bar state officials from earning outside income, a measure that state legislators have rejected.

In 2014, Cuomo earned $376,667 — more than half his total income — from an outside source, in the form of payment for his memoir, “All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life.” To date, he has earned more than $750,000 from the book; it has sold about 3,200 copies, according to NPD BookScan.