NEW YORK — Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty Tuesday of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and solicitation of bribes, a rebuke of Albany’s murky backroom dealings that were laid bare during the nearly eight-week trial.
Federal prosecutors had accused Percoco, the governor’s former executive deputy secretary and a longtime confidant, of accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from three executives from two companies with state business.
Jurors in U.S. District Court in Manhattan found Percoco not guilty of extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion. And it could not reach a verdict on two counts against one of Percoco’s co-defendants, an executive accused of bribing him in exchange for official actions.
At the height of his influence, Percoco, whom Cuomo had once described as his father’s “third son,” was known as the governor’s enforcer, responsible for everything from keeping lawmakers in line and intimidating Cuomo’s political rivals to making sure chairs and thermostats were in order for the governor’s public appearances.
The trial painted an unflattering portrait of Percoco and more broadly of the inner workings of the state Capitol, one replete with expensive fishing trips, clubby nicknames and “magic phone calls” that could make or break multimillion-dollar contracts.
“Percoco sold out his vast power, he sold out his influence and he betrayed the people of New York,” a prosecutor, David Zhou, said in his closing arguments.
The jurors made clear virtually from the start that they were struggling to reach consensus. Last week, after fewer than 20 hours of deliberations, they declared themselves deadlocked; sent back by the judge to continue deliberating, they declared themselves deadlocked again Monday. The judge again instructed them to continue; the split verdict was delivered on the eighth day of deliberations.
The panel’s mounting frustration was evident, especially as the trial dragged well beyond its projected four- to six-week finish. Several jurors asked to be dismissed from the case, citing its physical and emotional toll.
Much of the government’s narrative of the bribery schemes revolved around Todd R. Howe, a disgraced former lobbyist and longtime Albany insider, who prosecutors said engineered the bribes from the executives — Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., who worked for a Maryland-based power company, and Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, of a Syracuse-area development company — to Percoco.
Howe, who had pleaded guilty to eight felonies and was cooperating with prosecutors, described how Percoco helped the Syracuse company evade a costly union requirement on a development, and wrangled a pay raise for Aiello’s son, who worked in state government. In return, Howe said, Percoco pressured the executives to help his wife land a low-show job with the power company or to funnel thousands of dollars a month in covert payments.
But Howe at times seemed poised to be the prosecution’s downfall, rather than its linchpin.
In early February, he was arrested midway through his testimony after admitting during cross-examination that he had attempted to defraud his credit card company — after signing his cooperation agreement with the government.
The stunning development bolstered defense arguments that Howe was a self-interested liar whose testimony could not be believed; lawyers monitoring the case called the arrest a prosecutor’s worst nightmare.
The trial has been a persistent headache for Cuomo, who declined to comment throughout, citing respect for the judicial process. Republicans had seized upon the trial as evidence of a seamy Albany culture that they claimed the governor, a Democrat, had condoned and even encouraged.
In addition to the federal charges, prosecutors suggested that Percoco had violated New York State election and ethics laws by continuing to intervene in state business even after he left to work in the private sector. Witnesses said they had often seen Percoco in Cuomo’s New York and Albany offices even after he was no longer a state employee. Public records indicate Cuomo was often in the office at the same time.
And if the dealings themselves were not unseemly enough, prosecutors said, many were carried out via bullying, name-calling and thinly veiled code words; Percoco’s and Howe’s use of “ziti” to refer to money — a nod to the Mafia drama “The Sopranos” — was a frequent motif.
Other major Albany corruption trials are scheduled to follow in quick succession: those of Sheldon Silver, the longtime former Assembly speaker, and Dean G. Skelos, the former Senate majority leader. Both men are being retried after their convictions were overturned on appeal last year.
And in June, another former Cuomo ally, Alain E. Kaloyeros, will stand trial in a case that may cast further unflattering light on the governor’s administration. The trial of Kaloyeros, the former president of the State University’s Polytechnic Institute, involves bid-rigging in Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development plan, the so-called Buffalo Billion. Aiello and Gerardi also face charges in that trial.
Howe was expected to testify in the Buffalo trial as well.