MANHATTAN (CN) – At an expensive Italian restaurant in Connecticut, two energy lobbyists sat with a bottle of wine and their meals next to another man who needed a favor for his wife – and had direct line to New York’s governor.
So began the explosive first day of testimony of the government’s star witness against Joseph Percoco, the former reputed “right-hand man” to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
His chief accuser is now his former close friend: Todd Howe, a disgraced former energy lobbyist currently helping prosecutors pin Percoco to a $287,000 bribe paid by co-defendant Peter Galbraith Kelly so his energy company, Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), could land a lucrative state contract.
“He was as close to a brother as I ever had,” Howe said. “I was very close to Joe.”
Their one-time friendship now torn apart by criminal prosecution, Howe regaled a federal jury all day on Monday about tales of fine dining, sea fishing and other forms of high living on a corporate donor’s dime.
“Joe knew my clients pretty well because I talked to him about them quite often for the previous two years,” Howe testified. “He met many of my clients at political fundraisers and events.”
Prosecutors say Percoco was primed to sell his political connections in 2012 to Competitive Power Ventures and to real estate company COR Development because he had just bought an expensive home in Westchester.
Howe, who is the government’s sole cooperating witness after pleading guilty to eight felony counts, testified Monday that Percoco was open about his predicament.
“Joe said, ‘Hey, Braith, I appreciate you, you know, Todd has told me you’re going to help Lisa out for this job and, you know, I really appreciate it,” Howe recalled, detailing the $386 dinner the men got at an Italian restaurant called Della Francesca on Sept. 12, 2012.
“‘We need a second income. I’m having a hard time keeping everything afloat on the home front,’” Percoco added, according to Howe.
The request for help hinged, Howe said, on finding employment for his wife, Lisa Percoco.
“He obviously needed a second income in his household,” Howe recounted.
In return for finding his wife a job at CPV, Howe said, Percoco promised Kelly to help the energy company gain a state buyer for a fracked-gas power plant in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“Look, I’ll stay on top of the power purchase agreement,” Percoco told Kelly at the dinner, according to Howe’s testimony.
Howe agreed that Percoco never managed to get CPV that agreement.
On the witness stand, Howe also relayed how Percoco seasoned the bribery scheme with a reference from the HBO mob series “The Sopranos,” using “ziti” as a code word for bribes.
Prosecutors wanted to show the jury a clip of the program, drawing objections from defense attorneys.
“You happen to have three Italian-Americans on trial,” attorney Milton Williams said, referring to Percoco and COR president and general counsel: Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni denied the request to roll tape on Tony Soprano, ruling that prosecutors can make the same point through their questioning.
“For those people who aren’t familiar with ‘The Sopranos,’ he can explain it,” Caproni said.
Food, sporting and entertainment were running themes of the testimony, as prosecutors introduced photographs of a gleaming Percoco holding a picture of a large tuna that he caught on a fishing trip with Howe and Kelly.
The jaunt was also caught on Kelly’s financial ledger.
“Gone fishing Marina Montauk boat dealer,” the record said.
Kelly also paid the $279 bill the three men ran up a lunch meeting at the New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky in December 2010.
Howe said that Kelly picked up the tab, a bill recorded on a financial record with the handwritten notion: “Valley,” an apparent reference to CPV Valley, the company’s power plant project.
Ironically for an allegedly illegal conspiracy, Howe said that still another meeting took place at the chain restaurant Legal Seafood.
Howe also itemized alleged favors for Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign.
“During the period of 2010, I set up a breakfast with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Braith Kelly and some folks from CPV with the governor here in New York City, and I believe that was a contribution for $25,000,” he said. “I believe there were subsequent campaign contributions in the summer and fall of 2010 during the campaign.”
Percoco also asked Kelly to arrange for a private jet for the campaign, Howe said, adding that the “governor did fly on it, I think, for 24 hours, or a day, during the end of the campaign.”
Expect any warmth Percoco and Howe once had to chill into a deep-freeze upon cross-examination.
During opening arguments, defense attorneys for Percoco and his accused co-conspirators tore into Howe’s credibility by digging into his admitted crimes. Howe confessed to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the lobbying firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, his employer, and cheating the tax man about his illicit earnings.
Percoco’s attorney Barry Bohrer mocked Howe’s middle name last month to discredit his allegations.
“Todd Ransom Howe has kidnapped the truth in this case, and he’s holding these gentlemen hostage,” Bohrer said. “And the ransom he seeks is a good deal: a lesser sentence and perhaps his own freedom.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg tackled the pun head-on at the start direct examination, eliciting that “Ransom” was his mother’s maiden name.
Before the men had any animosity, Howe and Percoco worked together with two Cuomo administrations: the current governor and his father Mario Cuomo.
Evidence showed Howe referring to Percoco as “the kid I hired” in a message to Kelly in April 2010, which shared a New York Times profile about the young aide in Andrew Cuomo’s orbit.
Another email showed Howe using a degrading nickname: “Fat Man.”
“It was a term that we used for Braith, certainly not flattering nor gracious whatsoever, but that is the term we used,” Howe said.
Other offensive names will be censored from the jury: Judge Caproni shot down an attempt by defense attorneys to introduce evidence showing Howe using what she called “vile” language that was “anti-Semitic and misogynist.”
Deeming the evidence irrelevant, the judge noted that none of the defendants are Jewish or women.
Meanwhile, Howe’s direct examination has not yet concluded, and prosecutor Echenberg will continue her questioning on Tuesday morning. Four defense attorneys may want to take turns cross-examining him after that: for Percoco, Kelly, Aiello and Gerardi.