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Percoco trial raises questions about inner workings of state government

Testimony at the trial of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former top aide, Joe Percoco, has highlighted some practices inside the governor’s office that government reform groups say is at the very least questionable, and possibly even illegal.

Percoco, often described as Cuomo’s right-hand man and a “brother,” is accused of engaging in two separate bribery schemes with companies doing business with the state.

During testimony from current and former aides to Cuomo, it was revealed that while Percoco was off the state payroll managing Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign, he also was frequently using his old offices, adjacent to the governor’s offices in Albany and New York City.

Percoco kept his state-issued security swipe card and, according to FBI agents, made 837 calls from the state offices on 68 separate days.

The New York Times and Newsdayreported that Cuomo also was in those offices on at least 12 of those days when Percoco was there.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said if state offices were used to run the governor’s political campaign, that would be a violation of state public officers law.

“There’s strong evidence that that’s the case; of course, we don’t know for sure,” Horner said. “You’re not supposed to run political campaigns out of the governor’s office.”

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, said there are no records of what Cuomo and Percoco talked about when they were both at the office, or even if they talked at all. But she said it’s certainly an appearance of a conflict of interest when a campaign manager frequents a state office when he is not a government employee.

“We don’t know what was actually was discussed,” Lerner said. “What we do know is that it is a clear violation of state law to use any government assets, including phones, computers, copiers, printers and office space for campaign purposes. Period.”

The state entity that has the authority to investigate any alleged breaches of the state public officers law is the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. Walter McClure, JCOPE spokesman, said he can’t comment “on anything that is or could be an investigatory matter.”

Some of the testimony has shed light on how campaign donors interact with the governor and how it can look like a potential conflict of interest.

The prosecution’s chief witness, Todd Howe, is a former Cuomo family associate and lobbyist who pleaded guilty to eight felonies, including bribery and embezzlement. Howe, under questioning by prosecutors, recounted how the power plant company Competitive Power Ventures donated $25,000 to Cuomo’s campaign, and how the head of the company, Peter Galbraith Kelly, arranged for a special fundraiser in Connecticut with wealthy donors and gave Cuomo use of his private jet for a day during the governor’s 2010 election campaign.

Kelly is a co-defendant in the Percoco bribery trial.

The judge in the case, Valerie Caproni, felt compelled to instruct the jury that under state law, the campaign contributions are all legal.

Lerner said that’s exactly the issue.

“This is really the problem with our campaign finance system,” Lerner said. “It almost demands the public have these suspicions whether they are founded or not.”

Horner said the testimony illustrates the need to clean up New York’s campaign finance laws by setting stricter caps on contributions and eliminating a loophole that allows donors to use LLCs, or limited liability companies, to skirt existing donor limits.

“Some of the greatest scandal of Albany is what’s legal,” Horner said. “You shouldn’t be allowed to take airplane flights from big campaign contributors. You shouldn’t be allowed to accept huge campaign contributions from people with business before the government.”

Cuomo has proposed ending the LLC loophole and other reforms, but government reform advocates say he hasn’t pushed hard enough. Some of the campaign reform measures have been approved in the state Assembly but have stalled in the state Senate.

Cuomo has not commented on the trial, saying he wants to respect the process and believes it would be inappropriate for him to comment in the middle of the proceedings.

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.