NEW YORK (AP) — The government's key witness in the bribery trial of a former top aide to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the witness stand Monday against a friend he likened to a brother, saying he found corrupt businessmen willing to pay bribes to help his friend cope with financial difficulties.
Todd Howe identified Joseph Percoco and three businessmen in the Manhattan courtroom as he described teaming with them from 2010 to 2016 so Percoco could receive over $300,000 in bribes to use his influence in state government to help the men clear their projects.
Howe said Percoco frequently called the bribe money "ziti" because he had heard it on HBO's "The Sopranos."
Percoco, 48, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges. His lawyers have portrayed Howe as a corrupt man willing to say anything to reduce the prison sentence he could face after he pleaded guilty to eight crimes, including bribery and corruption, that carry a potential sentence of over 100 years in prison.
Howe, 57, said he hired Percoco when he finished college three decades ago and introduced him to the Cuomo family when the governor's late father, Mario Cuomo, was governor.
"He was the closest thing to a brother I ever had," Howe said.
Howe said that when Percoco ran into financial troubles and asked for help, "I did everything I could to help him."
The lobbyist said he helped Percoco's wife, a teacher, get a consulting job that paid $7,500 a month from an energy industry lobbyist and executive at a company that developed power plants.
He said the energy executive "wanted Joe to be his advocate and his eyes and ears in the governor's office."
Howe said he also arranged for $35,000 in checks to be written to Percoco's wife so the bribes from two real estate developers could not be traced to Percoco.
In return, Howe testified, Percoco worked to clear the way for state permits for a power plant and helped the real estate developers, including getting a series of raises for one of their sons, who worked for Cuomo.
Howe said he was able to arrange bribes for Percoco because of his friend's influence in state government.
To emphasize the point, Howe likened Percoco's influence to a famous investment commercial whose slogan was: "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."
"Joe was similar," Howe said. "Everybody respected Joe."
And when he called to ask for a favor, everyone "considered it something that had to be done," Howe testified.
Howe said he initially lied to the government because he was "ashamed and embarrassed" after his home and Washington office were raided, but later realized he "needed to stand up and accept responsibility."
He said he confessed to crimes including stealing $1 million from his Washington consulting company after he encountered financial trouble of his own.
He called his crimes "a huge mistake that wrecked my career and my family's life."