Political Corruption Trial Has New Yorkers Grumbling

The New York Capitol building in Albany.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Amid protests against the U.S. political system inside and outside the courthouse, a federal judge assembled a jury of seven women and five men Monday for a long-anticipated corruption trial of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s former right-hand man, Joseph Percoco.

Percoco was charged in September 2016 with participating in a wide-ranging bribery scheme. The 80-page indictment was unsealed at the height of a contentious presidential campaign, and corruption prosecutions against other top New York state officials.

Anger at the government was evident in the jury-selection process, where Percoco’s jury pool heaped scorn on public officials high and low.

“All politicians are crooks,” one potential juror wrote in a questionnaire. “They lie more than they tell the truth.”

For U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, this juror reflected the spirit of the times.

“Politicians right now are not held in high repute,” Caproni said on Friday afternoon, a few hundred miles north of a vote that reopened the federal government after a three-day shutdown.

One jury candidate complained that the political system was rigged in favor of powerful people and corporations; another one found the corruption allegations against someone so close to the governor personally “upsetting.”

Though the trial involves state officials, one volunteered his disgust at the Trump administration.

“The president and the majority of his officials are corrupt liars and can’t be trusted,” wrote the candidate, who did not make the final cut.

A small group of protesters outside the courthouse took aim at Cuomo, who has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Eric Weltman, a senior organizer with Food and Water Watch, held a sign: “Corruption Thretens [sic] Our Homes.”

One of the two bribery schemes with which Percoco is charged involves lobbyist Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., who was a top executive for the fracking gas company Competitive Power Ventures.

“What you’re seeing evidenced today is that the movement against fracking, which was so successful years ago is now coalescing behind – coming together around – opposing fracking infrastructure,” Weltman said in an interview.

Cuomo banned fracking in New York state in 2014, but he allowed fracked-gas pipelines and power plants to keep running.

Weltman said environmentalists will hold Cuomo accountable for that, amid rumors that the governor is considering running for president in 2020.

“We’re really going to be pressuring Cuomo in a unified way, all these individual projects like the CPV power plant, and to move New York off dirty fossil fuels,” Weltman said, using an abbreviation for Competitive Power Ventures.

Throughout jury selection, Judge Caproni reminded jurors that the trial against Percoco and his eight co-defendants – including real estate agents, energy executives and lobbyists – is “not a referendum” on campaign-finance reform or any other hot political issue.

Only three of the other co-defendants are standing trial with Percoco; the other five will stand trial in June.

Not even courtroom elevators were safe from the tense climate: Percoco’s attorney Barry Bohrer told Caproni that a spectator harassed his client there.

“It borders on harassment,” Bohrer said. “At some point it affects Mr. Percoco’s right to a fair trial.”

Caproni replied: “Well, I’m open for any suggestion that doesn’t run afoul of her First Amendment rights.”

Tensions are not expected to simmer down any time soon. Caproni warned jurors to ignore any protests that may take place around the courthouse as the trial begins Tuesday morning, with opening arguments.

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