National News

Phone calls blurred lines

ALBANY, N.Y. _ For eight months in 2014, a longtime top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Joe Percoco, left the state payroll to manage the governor's re-election campaign.

Posted Updated

ALBANY, N.Y. _ For eight months in 2014, a longtime top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Joe Percoco, left the state payroll to manage the governor's re-election campaign.

Yet during that time, the taxpayer-funded phone line in Percoco's former government office was routinely used for campaign-related business in violation of state regulations, according to records obtained by the Times Union.

During that time, records show the governor's office phone assigned to Percoco was used 68 times to call Cuomo's campaign office in Manhattan.

In response to what the records indicate, Percoco's attorney said that Cuomo's campaign manager never made campaign-related calls on the government phone and that others _ he did not identify them _ may have used the phone for that purpose. However, records of Percoco's state-issued building pass show that he was present in the governor's office when calls to the campaign headquarters were made.

New York's Public Officers Law prohibits the use of "property, services or other resources of the state" for political campaigns. The law is intended to prevent incumbent politicians from using taxpayer funds to gain political advantage over electoral opponents.

Percoco's presence in the governor's office while working for the re-election campaign was revealed in his recent federal trial, which ended with his conviction on bribery and corruption charges. Records documenting Percoco's swipe-card access were presented at the trial, and records of the use of his office phone were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Law request by the Times Union.

Cuomo has denied knowing that Percoco _ a decades-old family friend and one of the governor's closest confidantes _ had used the office and phone for campaign work. If Cuomo had been aware of that conduct, he could be exposed to ethical and, potentially, criminal consequences.

Percoco's desk in the governor's Manhattan headquarters was just steps away from Cuomo's office. At times, the calls to the campaign office were being made from Percoco's office while records indicate Cuomo was also at work.

Cuomo has said he believed that during the nearly eight months Percoco was his 2014 campaign manager, Percoco was simply doing work in his former office to transition out of his former position as the governor's executive deputy secretary. The governor did not provide details of what sort of transition work that would have been, or why it would take months to accomplish.

Federal prosecutors declined to call Cuomo as a witness at Percoco's trial. Still, political adversaries of Cuomo's have called for independent state investigations of the campaign work that was done by Percoco in the governor's office _ including whether the governor or others in his administration were aware of that work.

"The campaign was unaware he was using a state phone to make campaign calls," said Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins. "There are strict rules in place and we expect everyone to follow them."

Percoco will be sentenced next month for trading his considerable government influence for $300,000 in bribes from two development firms. Cuomo has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Percoco's government swipe-card records were presented as evidence by prosecutors at his corruption trial, and aides to the governor testified that Percoco would often work at his old desk during the campaign.

Percoco left the state payroll in April 2014 and returned to the public payroll Dec. 8 of that year. Between those dates, there were 837 calls over 68 days made from his old desk phone at Cuomo's Manhattan office.

Percoco's attorney Barry Bohrer said many of the calls during that eight-month period were not made by his client.

"Other people frequently used Joe's office and phone during this time period, and many of those calls were not made by Joe Percoco," Bohrer said in a statement. "The calls he did make were not campaign calls but were made to coordinate the transition of his previous government work to his replacements, and to help coordinate with government staff regarding the governor's schedule and movements. ... Joe regularly reimbursed the state for his personal calls, and he continued that practice when he returned to government after the campaign."

At times, though, the records show Percoco was there when campaign calls were made.

In one instance, access-card records indicate he entered the Manhattan office May 15, 2014, at 8:46 a.m., and again that same day at 2:13 p.m. (Employees are not required to swipe their card when they exit.)

On that day, the phone at Percoco's desk was used three times between 10:05 a.m. and 11:49 a.m. to call the Cuomo campaign office.

At 11:47 a.m. the same day _ about two minutes before a call was placed to the Cuomo campaign office _ the phone was used to call the line of Percoco's assistant in Albany. The phone in Percoco's old office was used again at 1:58 p.m. to call Percoco's home phone line.

A review of Percoco's swipe-card records from May 5 to July 14, 2014, indicate Percoco had swiped into the office on days when 215 of the 228 calls were made from his desk. The phone records indicate that many people involved in Cuomo's 2014 campaign effort received calls from Percoco's government line over the eight months he was off the state payroll.

A 1993 state ethics opinion said that no government resources "of any type, including telephones, office supplies, postage, photocopying machines or support staff assistance," can be used in furtherance of a political campaign. Violations of the law can result in heavy fines.

Tom Giordano _ the managing director of Cuomo's 2014 campaign _ refused to answer questions from the Times Union about whether he had been aware of Percoco using state resources for the campaign. Giordano asked to answer questions from the Times Union via email, but then did not respond.

A dozen calls were placed from the government line to the phone of a key campaign fundraiser, Jen Bayer, or her firm, JB Consulting. (Bayer is a fundraiser for Cuomo's re-election effort this fall.)

Reached by phone, Bayer said she would not have noticed if Percoco was calling her from a government phone or another line. She declined to say whether she was aware Percoco was doing campaign work from Cuomo's government office. Bayer also asked the Times Union to email her questions, which she also did not answer.

The Percoco government phone line was used to call many other Cuomo campaign consultants or staff, including the firms Buying Time and AKPD Media and Messaging. Eight calls were made to election lawyer Martin Connor, who during the 2014 campaign unsuccessfully sought to remove law professor Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo's 2014 Democratic primary challenger, from the ballot.

Connor told the Times Union it had not been apparent that Percoco had been calling him from a government line.

Calls were also made from the government phone to other Cuomo political associates, including former top Cuomo aide Steven Cohen, lobbyist Tonio Burgos, pollster and former Cuomo aide Andrew Zambelli _ who did not work on the 2014 campaign _ as well as to the offices of Island Capital, a real estate merchant bank that once employed Cuomo and is owned by fundraiser and friend Andrew Farkas.

Percoco's use of a government phone in the 2014 campaign was key background evidence in his federal trial, but was not in itself the basis of any criminal charges.

State Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox, however, asked Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in February to launch a criminal investigation.

Cox wrote that "a real question arising from the Percoco corruption trial is what role other executive chamber employees, including the governor" played in Percoco's conduct and "whether they knowingly aided and abetted or acquiesced to such unlawful acts." Cox argued that Percoco would be able to marshal state resources for the campaign by being present at the government office.

Cox also called for a probe by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which can impose civil penalties. It's not clear if either Vance's office or JCOPE, which has faced criticism for its close ties to Cuomo's administration, are conducting investigations into the matter.

In the wake of Percoco's conviction, Cuomo told reporters he was not aware of Percoco "violating any rules or using the equipment for non-government purposes."

"He didn't come in for me. He was handling transition matters," Cuomo said. "He had been there for years. You don't just turn over everything. He was integral to a part of the operation. And there is a transition, both leaving and then he came back.

"Coming back and forth to be a part of a transition and help _ that is fine," Cuomo added. "What's not fine is using government equipment for an unauthorized use, and that is a rule and everybody knows it."

The controversy over Percoco's apparent campaign work in the governor's office has erupted as Cuomo is facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge this year from actress Cynthia Nixon. Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor, has also called for JCOPE to investigate Percoco's activities.

In 2014, Cuomo faced a primary challenge from Teachout before defeating Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino in the general election.

Percoco's role in the 2014 campaign was expansive: The longtime Cuomo right-hand man, whom Cuomo has referred to as his "father's third son," assumed what sources described as an oversight role in fundraising, campaign events, influence and political strategy.

Cuomo's government office, at 633 Broadway, was just blocks from his Manhattan campaign office. Percoco was also a regular presence at the campaign office, despite the visits to his former government desk.

One of the most frequent numbers dialed from Percoco's phone was that of lobbyist Todd Howe, who pleaded guilty in September 2016 to eight felony counts and testified against Percoco and other defendants under a cooperation agreement with the Justice Department. There were 17 calls from Percoco's state line to Howe during the time Percoco was managing the campaign.

Three calls from the Manhattan office were placed to Syracuse-area developer Steven F. Aiello of Syracuse-based COR Development.

Aiello was convicted alongside Percoco in March on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. In a separate trial that ended last week, Aiello was found guilty of similar corruption charges in a case that also featured more major Cuomo campaign donors and associates.

The New York Times had earlier examined Percoco's swipe-card records in comparison with Cuomo's public schedules, and found the governor was often present when Percoco was working in the Manhattan office. The phone records reviewed by the Times Union buttress that information and also confirm that campaign-related calls were being made while Cuomo was present in that office.

On Oct. 15, 2014 _ three weeks before Election Day _ seven calls were made from Percoco's desk line between 2 and 7 p.m. to the Cuomo campaign office.

Cuomo's public schedules show that between 11:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. that day, he was in meetings at his office in Manhattan.

On the afternoon of June 30, 2014, two calls were made to the campaign office, one to the campaign election lawyer, Martin Connor, and one to Cristyne Nicholas, a Manhattan public relations executive.

Two days later, Nicholas' firm, Nicholas & Lence, made a $2,000 contribution to Cuomo's campaign, records show.

Nicholas told the Times Union that Percoco had not raised money from her, but did not recall the specifics of his call. That June afternoon, records show Cuomo was also in the governor's office in Manhattan.

In May 2014, three calls were placed from Percoco's old state phone to a number at HarperCollins, the publishing house that in October of that year released Cuomo's memoir, "All Things Possible," which ultimately earned Cuomo more than $780,000 despite low sales. Percoco's attorney did not answer a question about the purpose of those calls.

Allison Lee, a well-known lobbyist, got 19 calls from the phone in Percoco's office.

Lee, who worked at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development with Percoco in the 1990s, told the Times Union she was not involved in Cuomo's campaign efforts.

"He called because we're buddies, about real-life stuff," Lee said. "I wouldn't have noticed what number he was calling from."

Percoco's phone was often used to call Stephanie Benton, a gatekeeper known to quickly get the governor himself on the phone. Among other notables, Percoco's phone was used to call actor Neil Patrick Harris, star of the TV series "Doogie Howser, MD" and "How I Met Your Mother."

There have been questions raised about blurred lines: During Percoco's trial, two government attorneys who worked for Cuomo in 2014, Seth Agata and Linda Lacewell, testified that they had volunteered to do legal work for the Cuomo campaign.

Lacewell also testified about seeing Percoco at the government office after he had supposedly left to become campaign manager.

"I might see him for two or three days in the office and then not see him for a long time, and then he might be there again,'' Lacewell recalled.

Rachel Silberstein and Cathleen F. Crowley contributed reporting. cbragg(at) - 518-454-5303 -