WASHINGTON (CN) — Next week the Supreme Court will hear an appeal over the risk of criminalizing political lobbying efforts.
Joseph Percoco is asking the court to overturn his 2018 conviction for bribery, arguing his work was all above board because it did not coincide with his employment by a state government. Considered an influential figure within New York’s most powerful political dynasties, Percoco served the administrations of father-and-son New York Governors Mario and Andrew Cuomo more than two decades. He had immense power in Empire State politics through his close ties with the Cuomos, and Mario Cuomo even considered him a “third son.”
His career came to an end, however, when it was discovered how lucrative Percoco found government work, raking in over $300,000 from companies that had business with the state. In 2018 Percoco was sentenced to six years in prison for honest services wire fraud and soliciting bribes and gratuities.
Two bribery schemes are at the heart of those convictions. In 2012, when Percoco was serving as Andrew Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary, he got his wife a job with a state lobbyist Todd Howe. Howe headed up an energy company seeking a contract with the state. After hiring Percoco’s wife as an education consultant where she worked a few hours a week for $90,000 a year, Percoco helped Howe’s energy company obtain an energy contract for the state.
There is no dispute that Percoco was employed by the state in that matter, but his other convictions fall under a much murkier timeline. In 2014, Percoco left Cuomo’s office for about eight months to manage the governor's reelection campaign. During this time, Percoco is alleged to have helped a real estate developer avoid signing a costly labor agreement in exchange for $35,000.
The eight months where Percoco worked for Cuomo’s reelection campaign are key to the case before the high court. Percoco claims his role in this scheme sets him squarely in lobbyist — not criminal — territory.
“When a public official accepts money to convince the government to do something, we call him a crook,” Yaakov Roth, an attorney with Jones Day, wrote in a brief for Percoco. “But when a private citizen accepts money to convince the government to do something, we call him a lobbyist.”
The government contends meanwhile that it doesn’t matter that Percoco wasn’t formally employed in the governor’s office when he still had an immense influence.
“Someone like petitioner, who is simply on a brief formal hiatus from a government position, but who continues to functionally exercise the relevant authority of that position in the meantime, may be treated as what he plainly is: someone who wields public power,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in a brief to the high court.
The government’s arguments have a heavy focus on the facts of the case. When Percoco left Cuomo’s office to manage his reelection campaign, no one else was hired to take his place. Percoco also continued to use his government phone and offices.
Percoco’s role in the bribery scheme occurred after he signed his formal reinstatement and only a week before he formally reclaimed the title. After being pressured by the real estate company over email, Percoco called a government agency for New York, Empire State Development, to complain about the project being held up by a lawyer who insisted that the labor agreement be signed. After his phone call, Percoco assured the real estate company that the agency would change its mind. Sure enough, the company was informed the next day that it could move forward sans agreement.