MANHATTAN (CN) – Enjoying “The Sopranos” is not a crime, an attorney for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s former right-hand man told a federal jury Wednesday, depicting the prosecution’s equation of “ziti” as a code word for bribes as empty calories.
The TV mob drama reference has been a staple of the trial of Joseph Percoco, whose name has appeared in more than a dozen emails using Tony Soprano’s lingo to describe the more than $300,000 in payments to his wife from an energy company and a real estate developer.
While prosecutors call that evidence of corruption, Percoco’s attorney Barry Bohrer called it nothing more than a lighthearted pop-cultural reference.
“It’s not the language of criminals just because someone watches ‘The Sopranos’ and picks up language from ‘The Sopranos,’” he said.
If it were otherwise, he added: “Millions would be in jumpsuits.”
Most of the references to the show appeared in Percoco’s emails with the government’s star witness Todd Howe, a disgraced lobbyist whose credibility defense attorneys have savaged since the start of trial.
By Bohrer’s count, Howe imitated Tony Soprano more often than his client.
“You’ll find 16 ziti emails,” he claimed. “The score is 14-to-two in favor of Todd Howe.”
Both the government and defense teams agree that ziti meant money, but prosecutors allege that the men had been disguising criminal activity.
Pointing out the winking smiley faces next to the word, Bohrer argued that the playful emojis showed that was just mockery.
Whether a joke or not, the ramifications of “The Sopranos” lingo were serious.
If convicted, Percoco now faces up to decades behind bars, along with three executives standing trial with him – former Competitive Power Ventures executive Peter Galbraith Kelly, COR Development’s president Steven Aiello and general counsel Joseph Gerardi.
Kelly had been the person who hired Percoco’s wife for a $90,000 per year job in CPV’s educational program, a gig that prosecutors described as a low-show job created as a front to influence the governor.
On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Zhou ridiculed the three hours a month on average that Lisa Percoco reportedly put into that job.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have put more time into this trial than Lisa Percoco put into her $90,000-per-year job,” he scoffed.
Kelly’s attorney Daniel Gitner defended her work and training as a teacher.
“Lisa may not have been the hardest worker in the world, but that does not mean the job was not bona fide,” he said.
Gitner said that Kelly never urged Percoco to take an official action for CPV.
“That silence is deafening,” the attorney said, adding this was not a case of a quid pro quo, the Latin phrase for “this for that.”
“Quid pro nothing,” he said.
Over the past two days, four defense attorneys made passionate pleas for the jury to reach not-guilty verdicts, and each took turns skewering Howe – an eight-time convicted felon who was arrested again midway through his seven days on the witness stand.
Howe insisted that he “came to Jesus” when he decided to cooperate with the government.
Affecting the tone of an angry preacher, Aiello’s attorney Steven Coffey roasted Howe in Biblical style.
“I walked in the River Jordan, and I came to Jesus,” Coffey hosannaed on Tuesday, his voice full of outrage and mockery.
Thundering about Howe’s confessed sins, Coffey added later: “You know, at the end of the day, Todd Howe is going to come to Jesus, and when he does, Jesus is going to look at him.”
At that point, the prosecution lodged an objection.
“Sustained,” U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ruled.
The prosecution will have one more chance to deliver a rebuttal on Thursday, before the case heads for jury deliberations.