Corruption conviction hits close to Cuomo

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Earlier this week, Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty on three corruption charges for solicitng and taking more than $300,000 in bribes.

The proceedings kept New York’s political world riveted for nearly two months, from the mid-trial arrest of key witness Todd Howe to disclosures that Percoco maintained an active presence in Cuomo’s offices despite officially having left the administration to manage the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign.

The Percoco verdict has now opened the governor up to political attacks as he seeks a third term this year – and as he is widely believed to be considering a potential presidential bid in 2020.

To dig into what it all means for the governor, City & State brings back The Albany Angle podcast, hosted by NY1 statehouse reporter Zack Fink. Fink was joined on Wednesday afternoon by two top Albany reporters who have been following the trial, The Wall Street Journal’s Erica Orden and The New York Times’ Jesse McKinley.

Check out highlights of the interview below. To listen to the full podcast, which also touches on the potential gubernatorial candidacy of actress Cynthia Nixon, click on the link at the top of this article or subscribe to City & State’s podcasts on iTunes.

Zack Fink: In terms of Todd Howe's arrest in the middle of the trial, how do you think that affected the jury, if at all?

Erica Orden: It's not really clear. That's one thing I wish jurors had been willing to talk about. It's not really clear because from a juror's perspective, if in fact they had followed the judge's instructions and did not consume any media about the case or outside information, all they really knew was that they heard Todd say when he returned to the witness stand that he had been arrested and put in jail for some testimony that had to do with appearing to violate the terms of his cooperation agreement by lying to his credit card company. But frankly, that episode was rather short and they moved past it pretty quickly. The judge did not allow them to get into any great detail on his arrest, or the circumstances surrounding it, or anything like that. And as everyone knows, he testified in a suit, not a jail jumpsuit. Although that was a highly dramatic moment from a reporter's perspective or anyone else following the trial, the jurors had a pretty limited window on what happened.

ZF: Gov. Andrew Cuomo wasn't charged with any wrongdoing, but he was all over this trial. What is some of the more damning testimony or evidence that came out against Cuomo?

Jesse McKinley: I think the thing that still put them in a defensive posture most principally was this idea that somehow Joe Percoco had left the governmental service in 2014 and had continued to use the executive offices while serving as Cuomo's campaign manager. You talk to the election law people, they shake their heads. This would seem to be a blatant violation of ethics law and election law which prevents – kind of church and state prevention of a campaign worker working in an executive capacity, or working in an executive office. It's use of state resources by a member of the campaign. And the Cuomo administration has yet to really come up with an accurate answer as to how this happened. In his first remarks on Wednesday about this, the governor said, “Well you know, it was a transition and Joe was just coming and going to kind of go from one job to another.” But there were 68 days of him coming and going, which is a heck of a transition. That's a lot of time to spend, “Oh well, I'm packing up my boxes. Oh, I've got to check my email." I mean, maybe a day or two, you might be able to explain that away, but 68 days makes for a little bit more of an incredulous transition. But that isn't all. There were even just character moments that I think reflected badly on the governor. This fundraiser that was set up by one of the two companies that was implicated in the scandal where the governor basically was talked into dealing with one of the executives of this company that ended up in the heart of a scandal. He was basically lured over to talk to one of these executives by a Corvette, that “Hey man, come talk about cars.” Is that really the kind of chief executive you want, who can be lured into a conversation with a questionable company by car talk? And then there was just the broad sense of Albany as a pay-to-play culture.

ZF: We had heard rumors for years that Joe Percoco and other members of the administration would prevent people from leaving, but this is the first time this has come out into the open. Did that strike you?

EO: Absolutely. It's not just that they sort of convinced them to stay or something like that. The testimony had to do with Joe Percoco and other very senior members of the administration, according to testimony, would threaten to, or actually, call outside employers who had offered jobs to state employees, and tell the outside employers to or order the outside employers to retract the job offers from these state employees so they could not leave. Which is a pretty remarkable and heavy-handed tactic. I'd be curious to know what he thinks of that because again, no one testified that Andrew Cuomo himself did that, but certainly there were very, very senior members of the administration who appeared to have done that. And that was striking. And the Cuomo administration itself has joked about the fact that people never really leave. I believe they've referred to it as sort of the Hotel California effect, but the very serious reality of that is that when you – state employees, government employees sometimes have not particularly comfortable salaries and sometimes people do want to leave for that reason or other reasons. And when they're prevented from doing so, you see, in certain cases, that does in part lead to people seeking other sources of incomes. Sometimes those sources are illegal.

ZF: What was the damage, if any, to Cuomo? Does this land with voters and affect people's opinions of the administration?

JM: We won't know. I think from the outside, and particularly right now in the heat of the moment, I think it looks exceptionally bad for the governor. I think it has been a very rough eight weeks, I think that a lot of the coverage has been consistent in the Times and the Journal and other publications up and down the Albany to New York City corridor, and even farther afield. I mean, the one thing that might save the governor from lasting political damage is that the prosecutors did not put him on the stand, they never alleged any wrongdoing from him personally, and he has plausible deniability on some of this. Now that being said, in terms of him getting re-elected, I don't think it's going to damage him necessarily, but in talking to political consultants, in terms of a longer term image making, this would be one of the first things that a Republican who wanted to knock Cuomo off his national or his presidential campaign could use to tarnish. It would be one of the first ads, that this is the guy whose top aide was convicted of federal corruption charges, do you want him running your country? These are the types of salacious, unpleasant details that make for pretty good 30-second ads because you don't have to say much to put a bad image in someone's mind.

OE: I agree with Jesse's assessment, and I also would add that it not only provides – the average voter I don't know right now if you went up to them and asked them, “Is this going to cause you to shy away from voting for Andrew Cuomo for re-election?” I’m not sure the answer would be “yes.” I don't think it’s necessarily penetrated that far with voters. But I do think that A, it provides incredible fodder for anyone who is running against him on any level, whether it’s the gubernatorial Democratic primary, whether it’s a national race, in any sort of election. And I also think that if he were to seek some sort of national office, all the national political reporters and reporters who would be assigned to cover him or take interest in him at that point, it also provides a very easy way for them to go back, pull those trial transcripts and rehash it all over again.

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