MANHATTAN (CN) – On his seventh and final day of testimony, the government’s star witness in a corruption trial rattling New York State politics felt the old sting of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rage when a four-year-old project tied to the scheme collapsed.
“It’s a date that will be forever etched in my head, yes,” disgraced lobbyist Todd Howe recounted on Thursday.
The governor’s approval meant a lot to Howe, who served two generations of Cuomos before he became a crucial witness against an honorary member of the political dynasty: Joseph Percoco, who has been described as the late Mario Cuomo’s third son.
Percoco has turned black sheep of his non-hereditary family after being charged with a more than $300,000 bribery scheme to obtain “low-show” jobs for his wife with companies doing business with the state.
COR Development, one of those companies, saw its plans to replace the Carrier Dome stadium in Syracuse dashed in early 2014, a failure that created a headache for Cuomo, who had a public brawl with the city’s mayor over the project.
As the plan collapsed, Howe said, COR’s president Steven Aiello walked out politically wounded.
“It was a mess, and Steve felt like he kind of got hit with a lot of shrapnel from this project that he was trying to help with,” Howe said.
The famously mercurial Cuomo, whom New York Magazine once likened to Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, has not been accused of wrongdoing, but Howe testified that he told prosecutors to keep an eye on the governor.
“Andrew Cuomo deserves attention and scrutiny and is a bully,” Howe recalled telling them.
Howe has weathered many blows himself over the course of gladiatorial grilling, which began with him as a resident of idyllic Idaho and ended with him as an inmate at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Well before he took the witness stand, Howe admitted to a long list of crimes that he claimed preceded his “come to Jesus” moment with prosecutors. He avoided jail and took up residence in the Mountain States region by cooperating with prosecutors, pleading guilty to eight charges carrying a possible 130-year sentence.
The proposition that Howe found religion through government cooperation always had been debatable, at best, but one thing appears to be indisputable: It took him as long to weather marathon questioning and cross-examination as it took the God of the Bible to create the universe.
Howe’s self-styled story of salvation took a hit early on in cross-examination, when a defense attorney suggested he committed another federal crime between his guilty plea and trial: Howe admitted that he misled his credit card company to get a refund for a $604 stay at the Waldorf, an act he claimed was unintentional.
The revelation has left his cooperation agreement with prosecutors in doubt: A federal judge revoked his bail and sent him to prison, a journey he recounted to jurors earlier this week.
Howe now insists the turn of events came from a faulty memory about his hotel visit and his daughter’s then-illness.
Full of confident swagger at the start of his testimony, Howe responded to the question of whether he was an honest man last week by stating: “I am now.”
Four seasoned defense attorneys threw back those words at him with relish.
"Can you tell this jury why the government would arrest an honest man?" Aiello’s attorney Stephen Coffey asked at one point.
Later, Percoco’s attorney Barry Bohrer twisted the knife.
"Mr. Howe, are you still an honest man?" he needled.
With prosecutors lobbing objections, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni shot down both argumentative questions before dismissing the witness.
“Mr. Howe, go back to Idaho,” a confused Caproni told him, before remembering that Howe had been remanded to federal prison.
“No, go back to the MCC,” the judge corrected herself, abbreviating the federal prison’s name.
Filling Howe’s seat on the witness stand by the end of the day was Gary Lambert, the CEO of energy company Competitive Power Ventures, whose controversial fracked-gas power plant has loomed large over the course of trial.
Several dozen protesters gathered outside the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse on Wednesday to deliver a Valentine’s Day card asking Cuomo to shut down the company’s CPV Valley, which prosecutors allege to have gotten a boost from a corrupt deal.
Asked about the demonstration, the company’s spokesman Tom Rumsey said: “CPV takes the federal charges very seriously.”
“The alleged conduct is in direct contradiction to CPV’s core values and expectations of our staff,” he continued. “We continue to cooperate fully with the investigation.”
New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, Academy Award-nominated actor James Cromwell, and community activist Pramilla Malick were among the speakers calling for the company’s closure and a full ban on all forms of hydro-fracturing in New York State.
Governor Cuomo called for a moratorium on new drilling in 2014, leaving exceptions for infrastructure such as pipelines and power plants.
The governor’s office did not respond to an email request for comment.
Critics of the CPV Valley plant may have had their suspicions partially confirmed late on Thursday, when CEO Lambert told the jury he never found a copy of the ethics opinion that Percoco said allowed his wife to work with the company.
"We absolutely need to get a copy of that for the files," Lambert recalled saying.
But the CEO said that he does not know to this day whether one exists, leaving a mystery open for when his cross-examination continues on Friday.
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