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Opening statements in trial of Cuomo's former top aide present two different views

The Thurgood Marshall federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, where the trial of Cuomo's former aide Joe Percoco is being held.
Karen DeWitt
The Thurgood Marshall federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, where the trial of Cuomo's former aide Joe Percoco is being held.

The prosecution and defense offered two very different versions of events in the trial of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco and three business associates in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Much of the prosecution’s case will hinge on the testimony of another former associate, Todd Howe, who pleaded guilty to several felonies and will be the government’s star witness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Boone laid out the government’s case against Percoco, saying it’s a case of “old-fashioned corruption” motivated by “greed, pure and simple.” He described Percoco as the governor’s right-hand man.

“Wherever the governor went, Percoco went,” Boone said.

He said Percoco decided to “sell his power and influence” and “betray the people of New York” for over $300,000 in bribes to two different business entities. The prosecution said Competitive Power Ventures, run by defendant Peter Galbraith Kelly, gave Percoco’s wife, Lisa, a $90,000-a-year teaching job that required only a few hours of work in exchange for Percoco’s help to ease state rules to get a power plant built.

Boone said in a second scheme, Percoco received $35,000 for helping Steven Aiello and Joe Gerardi, the principal figures in the Syracuse-based COR Development, with projects for Cuomo’s economic development program, including the Inner Harbor project.

Boone said Howe, a former lobbyist and longtime Cuomo associate, was the conduit for the bribery arrangement. Howe has pleaded guilty to eight felonies, and he will testify for the prosecution.

Boone also signaled that the government in its case will highlight Percoco and Howe’s use of the word “ziti” as code for alleged bribes, a term he said they took from The Sopranos, a TV series about the mob.

Attorneys for Percoco, as well as for Kelly, Aiello and Gerardi, all say their clients are innocent and victims of a “mistaken prosecution.” They repeatedly tried to discredit Howe, calling him a “lifelong con man” and a “congenital liar” who even “lied to his dog walker.” And Percoco’s attorney, Barry Bohrer, said the defense will show that Howe even altered emails to falsely make it look like Percoco was using his official influence to help the three businessmen.

Bohrer said Percoco is “not perfect” but a “human being who made mistakes” that he said “don’t amount to a federal offense.”

Boone conceded that Howe is a “criminal” but said it was Percoco who “hounded” Howe to get him more money after Percoco bought an expensive house and was over his head in mortgage payments.

In the afternoon, jurors saw documents from the Percocos’ bank and mortgage accounts that shows the purchase of an $800,000 house in Westchester and $7,500 in monthly payments made to Lisa Percoco from the power company, Competitive Power Ventures, through a third-party conduit.

Prosecutors also showed documents that they said demonstrates $35,000 flowed from the Syracuse developers to the Percocos, using an LLC created by Howe as a pass-through.

The defense, in cross-examination, showed that the Percocos had about $50,000 in joint savings accounts with other family members, which they said shows that they were not desperate for money.

As the defense cross-examination dragged on, the judge in the case, Valerie Caproni, grew impatient, and she admonished Percoco’s attorney, Michael Yaeger, for taking too long to make his points.

“Everyone is entitled to a defense,” Caproni said. “But they are not entitled to a tedious defense.”

Court resumes Wednesday, when Cuomo’s chief of staff and longtime aide Linda Lacewell is expected to take the stand.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.