To the growing annals of New York corruption trial history, enter Tuesday, March 13: the day a long-deliberating jury found Joseph Percoco guilty of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and solicitation of bribes (he was also found not guilty of other charges). Percoco enters the annals thanks to the jury’s findings of abuse of his position as a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom he had a personal relationship even tighter than his official title suggested. Cuomo has said his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, considered Percoco a third son. In a statement on Tuesday the governor said that the verdict was “personally painful.”
Percoco’s close ties to Cuomo have made the trial and verdict stand out even in New York State, where a spate of state legislators and power brokers have recently ended their careers in disgrace. Cuomo’s hinted-at national ambitions mean the scrutiny could continue.
Here are three takeaways from the verdict and what it means for New York’s near-term political future:
The trial painted a picture of Albany wheeling and dealing
There were plenty of juicy tidbits from weeks of testimony, including Percoco’s habit of using the word “ziti” to heavily suggest monetary payments a la mob drama “The Sopranos.” Prosecutors argued that Percoco received payments of more than $300,000 in various forms in return for taking state action benefiting real estate and energy companies.
The trial detailed addendums such as meals and a fishing trip to curry favor with Percoco, a man who prosecutors sought to portray as an influencer in Cuomo’s hierarchy both when he was in and out of state government.
Defense attorneys claimed Percoco’s actions weren’t criminal and the payments were for legitimate work. The defense team also portrayed the prosecution’s star witness and disgraced former lobbyist Todd Howe as unreliable. Howe was arrested mid-trial after violating the terms of his cooperation agreement.
But beyond the sensational details, trial testimony portrayed an unsavory state government where big campaign contributors are eager to curry favor, willing to exploit campaign finance limit loopholes. Testimony during the trial also unearthed the issue of potential violations of state law by Percoco, given evidence of his presence at and likely work in government office space while working on Cuomo’s re-election campaign — a bright line that is supposed to be avoided.
There are more corruption trials coming
Percoco lawyer Barry Bohrer says there will be an appeal, so stay tuned for that.
Other recent major corruption convictions — of former State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos and former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — were overturned last year. Both cases fell apart on procedural grounds: the directions given to the jury were found to be inconsistent with the narrowed legal definition of corruption issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell vs. United States. (The Percoco trial took place in the post-McDonnell era.)
Silver and Skelos are both expected to be retried this year.
There is also a companion trial to the Percoco case in June, which is expected to probe pay-to-play allegations in Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” revitalization initiative for that part of New York — which means that hard looks at the practices of state government will continue to be in the news with the prosecution of another Cuomo ally, Alain Kaloyeros.
Will it affect Cuomo in 2018 or 2020?
Constant headlines about murky pay-to-play practices or even wholesale alleged corruption by state officials aren’t the ideal backdrop for Cuomo’s gubernatorial election campaign this year. And if Cuomo pursues a presidential bid in 2020, as many have suggested, surely opposition researchers will attempt to use Percoco to paint Cuomo’s New York as a swamp.
Will such slurs stick?
Cuomo was not accused of wrongdoing, and he is far ahead for 2018. The Republican opposition is having a hard time getting to its feet. Perhaps the trials will give fodder to a challenge from Cuomo’s left, if someone like “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon makes a real go of it. But Cuomo has already locked up plenty of union and political support, so he’s in a comfortable position.
Who knows what the political landscape will look like in 2020, a few newscycles and myriad Twitter storms in the future.
Good-government champion Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the trial’s consequence on Cuomo’s political futures depends on what Cuomo does going forward.
Cuomo’s statement on Tuesday said that “we must learn from what happened and put additional safeguards in place to secure the public trust. Anything less is unacceptable.”
If those additional safeguards turn into a comprehensive package of reforms, perhaps voters will see Cuomo as an anti-corruption crusader.
But if there’s mostly silence from governor’s mansion, voters may be “unhappy,” says Horner.
“And an unhappy electorate can sometimes — not always, but sometimes — lead to big problems for incumbents.”