NEW YORK — A federal prosecutor told a jury Tuesday that a former top aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo accepted more than $300,000 in bribes, but defense attorneys belittled the claim, saying the bulk of the money was his wife’s salary at a legitimate job.
Longtime Cuomo confidante Joseph Percoco is the main focus of a prosecution at a Manhattan federal court trial where three businessmen also are defendants. Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their opening statements in the trial Tuesday.
Percoco’s proximity to the state’s Democratic governor for two decades was underscored in opening statements at a trial projected to last over a month.
“He was the governor’s right-hand man,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Boone. “Wherever the governor went, Mr. Percoco went.”
Defense attorney Barry Bohrer said Percoco was the governor’s “buddy and his loyal friend and his counselor” during a bottom-to-the-top career that began at age 19 and included stints as an unpaid intern for Cuomo’s late father, Mario, when he was the state’s governor, and for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
At Mario Cuomo’s 2015 funeral, Andrew Cuomo described Percoco as “my father’s third son who sometimes I think he loved the most.” He also has likened him to a brother.
In a memoir, Cuomo once wrote that Percoco served as his “divorce counselor” when he split with Kerry Kennedy and was among the first people he turned to when he ran for attorney general in a rebound from a disheartening failed run for governor in 2002. Percoco was Cuomo’s campaign manager in the attorney general race in 2006 and also ran Cuomo’s 2011 campaign for governor.
Cuomo has not been accused of wrongdoing and probably will not testify.
Boone told jurors to follow a trail of emails to conclude Percoco, driven by greed, “decided to sell the most powerful thing he owned: his job.”
The prosecutor said Percoco had two schemes. In one, an executive with a Syracuse-based energy company arranged to pay Percoco’s wife nearly $300,000 over three years in return for Percoco’s help in obtaining permits to build a plant in New York state, Boone said. In the other, two real estate developers paid him $35,000 in a “roundabout way” to secure him as an ally, he added.
“He decided to sell his power and betray the people of New York for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Boone said.
The prosecutor said three businessmen on trial with Percoco “each decided to pay bribes to have somebody on the inside take care of them.”
Bohrer said the benefits described by the government were fully disclosed and legal.
He called it a “mistaken prosecution” resulting from lies by Todd Howe, a lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges and will testify against Percoco.
Bohrer said Howe “has kidnapped the truth in this case and is holding these men hostage.”
“He’s not perfect. He made mistakes,” Bohrer said of Percoco. “But those were not mistakes that brand him a criminal the rest of his life.”