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Cuomo's explanation of former top aide's business dealings raises questions

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s explanation of some of the circumstances of a U.S. attorney’s probe into his administration has left some answered questions.

Cuomo offered a brief explanation of his former top aide’s involvement in a scandal now encompassing his administration, saying the actions of Joe Percoco were perfectly legitimate. The governor says he knew that when Percoco left his $156,000-a-year job to manage Cuomo’s 2014 reelection campaign, that Percoco would also work for private clients, but that’s all he knew about the situation.

“Joe left state service, and went into the private sector, he consulted for my campaign,” said Cuomo. “I knew he might be accepting consulting arrangements with other companies, but beyond that, no.”

What Cuomo says he did not know was reported by Percoco in financial disclosure forms with the state ethics commission in mid-2015. Percoco received up to $125,0000 for consulting work from two companies, Clough Harbor Associates and COR development. Both are heavily involved in Cuomo’s economic development projects, including the Buffalo Billion.

But Cuomo says it is legal for someone to do that.

“Can you leave state service and then represent companies that deal with the state? Yes you can,” Cuomo said. “You can’t appear on their behalf before the state. There’s a two-year ban.”

It’s unknown exactly what kind of consultation that Percoco provided, and whether it did involve representing the client’s before state government. Percoco’s lawyer is not responding.

The man that Andrew Cuomo has described as his father’s “third son,” returned to the Cuomo administration in December 2014, and eventually was paid nearly $175,000 a year, before he left in January of 2016. Cuomo said at the time that Percoco said he needed to make more money.

Reform advocates say perhaps the governor and his former top aide have discovered what they call a “sweet spot,” a loophole in the state’s lobbying laws. Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“What has been reported could mean that there’s a gaping hole in New York’s ethics laws,” said Horner. “Where you can leave government, work for a campaign, and be allowed to have outside clients. And as long as you’re not representing them before the government, it could be perfectly legal.”

But Horner says the situation raises a number of questions, including what exactly Percoco did for the money and whether he brought the clients’ perspectives back to the governor when Percoco rejoined the administration.

Horner says he also questions why Cuomo was not more curious about Percoco’s other clients, during the time Percoco managed the governor’s reelection campaign. It was, after all, during the same time period that the U.S. attorney who is now investigating Percoco and others in the governor’s administration was probing the premature closure of Cuomo’s Moreland Act ethics panel.

“If someone is going to run my campaign, and also have private clients, I would ask them who those clients were,” he said. “And expect that they would be removed from any policy making decisions that affect those clients.”

Horner says at the very least, Percoco should have asked for an opinion from the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. It’s not known if Percoco did so, those opinions are kept secret.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.