MANHATTAN (CN) — With months to go before a bribery trial, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former “right-hand man” faced a crush of protesters at a court appearance Thursday.
Roughly a dozen Orange County residents sat in the courthouse pews today as U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni considered whether the sprawling corruption case before her warrants two trials.
In addition to Joseph Percoco, the case implicates the former president of State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, an energy industry executive and the developers behind a billion-dollar project to revitalize Buffalo.
One piece of the 80-page complaint accuses Percoco of having accepted expensive fishing trips, lunches and other gifts from a lobbyist named Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr.
At the time, Kelly was a top executive for the energy company Competitive Power Ventures. Residents of Wawayanda say these allegations lay out the origins of a corrupt deal to flush $100 million in state money into a fracked-gas power plant now threatening their homes.
A small town of 7,266 in Orange County, Wawayanda is about 90 minutes north of New York City and 40 miles west of the Hudson River.
Court papers show that Kelly outfitted the Cuomo campaign with a private jet on Percoco’s behalf, and his company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the firm of a lobbyist who is now cooperating with the government.
Percoco is quoted in the indictment as describing bribery payments as “zitti,” an apparent nod to the mobsters from HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
Reminiscent of another HBO series, “Game of Thrones,” the Wawayanda residents began chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as Kelly and Percoco left court today.
“This is not a victimless crime!” shouted Pramilla Malick, an organizer with the citizens group Protect Orange County.
Percoco ducked into the courthouse bathroom to escape the crowd, but the protesters waited for him outside the door, using the time to speak with reporters.
Madeline Shaw, who lives two blocks away from the 650-megawatt plant, offered a theory about how the plant got the green light. “The only thing I can see is someone’s getting blackmailed or somebody’s getting paid off,” she said.
She added that the plant was built on sacred Native American territory, and that the lands are also home to a species of endangered bat.
An older woman, though she declined to give her age, Shaw said she has lived in Wawayanda since she was a child.
After Percoco left the bathroom, the crowd followed him through the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse and onto the rainy streets of Lower Manhattan.
Walking beside his lawyers under an umbrella for the two-block walk to the subway, Percoco remained silent as the protesters heckled him.
“You are guilty of polluting New York,” Eric Weltman, a senior organizer at the Washington-based nonprofit Food & Water Watch, told him. “You are guilty of polluting Orange County. You are guilty of polluting the world.”
Several of the protesters complained about the recent firing of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney who indicted Percoco.
“We want him back,” Malick said.
Tabloids gushed over Bharara’s anti-corruption crusade against New York lawmakers as “Albany on Trial.”
Roughly two years ago, Competitive Power Ventures was acquired by the private equity firm Global Infrastructure Partners, whose chairman Adebayo “Bayo” Ogunlesi is a part of President Donald Trump’s Economic Advisory Board.
Protect Orange County activists floated this connection as one of the many possibilities surrounding Bharara’s abrupt firing.
Though Bharara was one of 46 Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys forced out by Trump this year, the prosecutor left a meeting with the president-elect in November, saying Trump had promised to let him keep his job.
The prosecutor has hinted repeatedly at political interference with his office, but he shed little light on such theories in a recent exclusive interview with The New York Time, chalking up his dismissal to the “helter-skelter incompetence” of the Trump administration.
Percoco passed by Bharara’s old office at St. Andrew’s Plaza before dodging the rain and his critics, disappearing down the stairs of a City Hall subway station.
If Judge Caproni divides the corruption case, the first phase of the trial will begin on Oct. 30 this year, and the second phase will start on Jan. 8, 2018.