Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s chief of staff was one of the first witnesses to testify at the corruption trial of Cuomo’s former top aide, Joe Percoco. Linda Lacewell described Percoco as a trusted loyal and very senior aide to the governor.
Percoco, along with three businessmen, is accused of engineering two bribery schemes. In one, he allegedly arranged for his wife to get a $90,000 a year teaching job with a power plant company where she did little work.
In the other, Percoco is charged with taking $35,000 in bribes from the Syracuse based COR development company, paid through a shell company set up by another former Cuomo associate, lobbyist Todd Howe, who has already pleaded guilty to eight felonies and is expected to be a star witness in the trial.
In exchange Percoco is accused of doing favors for the business, including obtaining a raise for the COR company president’s son, who worked as a lower level aid in the governor’s office.
The prosecution called on Lacewell, now Cuomo’s chief of staff, who was the governor’s chief risk officer when Percoco was in state government. She was so diligent at her job of identifying potential pitfalls in administration projects that she told the jury she’d earned the nickname the “Minister of Defense.”
Lacewell told the court that Percoco, whose official title was executive deputy secretary to the governor, was one of Cuomo’s four top staff members, overseeing the governor’s public events, hiring for the governor’s office and dealing with labor unions, local government leaders and the legislature. She says that the two were “very close,” and that Percoco would usually be wherever the governor was.
“They were very close,” Lacewell said. “He was close with the family.”
Percoco was also close to the governor’s father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, and even, Lacewell testified, had personal information about the Cuomos on his home computer, including details about Mario Cuomo’s estate and Andrew Cuomo’s taxes.
That became an issue, she says, when on April 26, 2016, she received a call from Percoco saying that the FBI was raiding his house and confiscating his personal laptop, as well as documents regarding his wife Lisa’s employment with the power company. Lacewell says it was then that she first learned of Lisa Percoco’s job with the power company. She says Percoco also told her, and the governor, that day that he had accepted payments from COR, the Syracuse developers, through Todd Howe. Lacewell says the governor seemed very surprised to learn about the arrangements and asked Percoco to repeat them.
“The governor said ‘what?’,” she said.
Lacewell was also asked by the prosecution about Percoco’s time in 2014 when he left state government and was off the state payroll managing Cuomo’s reelection campaign. She says Percoco frequently occupied his old office , which connected to the governor’s office, even though he was not working for the government, and that no one replaced him in the post and the office remained empty.
She also said that Percoco normally frowned upon giving raises to junior workers in the governor’s office, and expressed the belief that public service should be its own reward.
In cross examination, Percoco’s attorney asked Lacewell to describe Percoco’s loyalty to the governor, and his well-known desire to protect Cuomo in political and even personal matters. Attorney Barry Bohrer also established in his questioning, that Percoco was well aware that the governor prized integrity and honesty, even emblazoning the words “we work for the people” on a pin that he required all of his staff to wear.
“He designed the pin,” Lacewell said.
Cuomo is not charged with any crimes. But Alex Camarda, with Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, says the trial shows the governor in a bad light.
“I think it does reflect badly on him because he’s known as a hands on manager, this occurred under his watch,” Camarda said. “Therefore he’s ultimately responsible. The buck stops with the governor.”
Lacewell will continue her testimony Thursday. The governor’s top economic development official for Central New York is expected to go next.