MANHATTAN (CN) – Three days before the public learned that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top aide was under federal investigation, his chief of staff found out about the probe in a phone call from its primary target.
That is what Cuomo’s chief of staff Linda Lacewell told a federal jury on Wednesday, on her first day of testimony in the corruption trial of Joseph Percoco, a man close enough to the governor to be considered a member of a political dynasty.
As narrated by Lacewell, Percoco said that agents showed him a photo of one of his wife’s work colleagues and told him: "You know what this is about."
The revelation purportedly left Cuomo gobsmacked. Lacewell testified: “The governor said, ‘What?’”
During opening statements on Tuesday, a federal prosecutor told the jury that Percoco abused his position to land "low-show" jobs for his wife that earned her more than $300,000, income that the government claims amounted to bribes.
In 2012, Joseph and Lisa Percoco bought an $815,000 home in New York’s Westchester County, and prosecutors claim that he chose to supplement his income by working his contacts in the state’s energy and development sectors.
Lacewell testified today that Percoco told her on a phone call all about his payment arrangements with those companies: Competitive Power Ventures, or CPV, and COR Development.
"He said COR did not want to pay him,” Lacewell said, with the company opting instead to pay through another entity.
COR’s president Steven Aiello and general counsel Joseph Gerardi are also on trial.
“Todd Howe paid him through Potomac Strategies," Lacewell added, referring to Howe’s consultant firm.
Howe later pleaded guilty to multiple felony charges, including corruption, and is now the government’s star witness.
Feeling uneasy about Howe’s funding arrangement, Percoco told Lacewell: “He’s cute like that,” according to her testimony.
The call, Lacewell said, took place on April 26, 2016, just three days before word of the investigation leaked to the New York Daily News through anonymous sources.
Other details of Lacewell’s testimony corroborated the prosecution’s allegations against the men on trial.
Part of Percoco’s phone call, Lacewell said, went into another financial arrangement with a “friend of his named Braith,” the nickname of CPV executive Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., who is also standing trial.
According to Lacewell, Percoco told her that Kelly got his wife a job appropriate for her teaching background and then paid her through a “money man” named Chris Pitts, who also works for CPV.
Earlier in the day, an FBI accountant showed the jury charts mapping the payments funneled through Pitts to Percoco’s wife.
Percoco does not deny that he helped find his wife get these jobs, or that she was paid in this manner.
Steadfastly maintaining his innocence, however, Percoco insists that these transactions were all legal.
"He said that her employment had been cleared by the lawyers," Lacewell said, adding later that she assumed Percoco had been referring to counsel from the governor’s office.
Lacewell said that she coordinated a second call with Percoco after their first.
“For the first call, after I spoke with him, I conferenced the governor,” she said. “I spoke to the governor for a moment about how he should conduct himself during the call, and then I connected Mr. Percoco to the call.”
Where Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg’s direct examination elicited details of the dramatic phone call and the machinations of state government, cross-examination by Percoco’s attorney Barry Bohrer shined a light on his client’s human side.
Bohrer asked Lacewell to testify about Percoco’s reputation as the “third son” of Cuomo’s late father Mario Cuomo, who also served the state as governor. Indeed, Andrew Cuomo used that very phrase to describe Percoco in a eulogy at his father’s funeral.
As an honorary member of the family, Percoco could be fiercely protective of his non-genetic brother, earning a reputation in the New York Times as the governor’s “pugnacious” advocate, ready for a fight.
Cuomo himself has been called “Machiavellian” by New York Magazine, and Lacewell agreed with Bohrer that the governor could be a “demanding boss.”
“He still is,” she said.
In Cuomo’s office, Lacewell said that she earned the nickname “Minister of Defense” for her work vetting campaign donations, conforming the office to ethics rules, and getting ahead of negative press.
Extending the metaphor, Bohrer asked: “Was Joe offense or defense?”
“Offense,” Lacewell replied.
Lacewell returns to the witness stand on Thursday morning, and the following witness will be James Fayle, the Central New York regional director for Empire State Development.
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