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Cuomo keeps his focus away from former aide's corruption trial

Rich Mitchell

The bribery trial of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former top aide, Joe Percoco, begins its third week in federal court Monday. Cuomo has not commented on the proceedings and has instead been busy focusing on other topics.

In the first two weeks of the trial, questions have been raised about Percoco’s use of his state offices while he was off the government payroll for most of 2014 and managing Cuomo’s reelection campaign.  

According to testimony from FBI agents, Percoco frequented his former offices in New York City and Albany, including swiping his security card in and out on eight days in the month of May 2014 and making 837 phone calls from his former New York City office on 68 separate days.

Percoco is not charged with any federal crimes in connection with his use of the government offices, but the practice violates state laws and codes of conduct set up by the state ethics commission.

Cuomo has not addressed the alleged violation of state rules and gives a standard answer when asked about any elements of the trial.

“We’re in the middle of a trial,” Cuomo said on Jan. 26. “I think it would be highly inappropriate for me to provide commentary at this time.”  

The governor has been trying to draw public attention to other subjects. He announced that flu cases are spiking, urged people to get flu shots and signed a bill into law that makes it easier for cancer patients who are misdiagnosed to sue their doctors.

In addition, Cuomo has kept up a steady stream of criticism about President Trump and the Republican Congress in Washington, repeating his charges that the federal tax law unfairly punishes blue states like New York because of the loss of some state and local tax deductions.

“It's terrible in Washington,” Cuomo said Jan. 31. “The shutdown was terrible, the gridlock is terrible, but the President caused much of it himself. They passed that tax bill. They rammed it through. They did it all themselves. They didn't include any Democrats. As a matter of fact, they targeted the Democratic states.”

The governor spoke in Plattsburgh, where he was touring a neighborhood damaged by floods due to ice jams on the Saranac River. He announced he will use state funds to help pay for the flood victims’ losses.

The governor’s political opponents, meanwhile, are trying to draw attention to the trial.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco (R-NY), who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, addressed the matter directly in his announcement speech on Jan. 30.

“Joe Percoco, Andrew’s closest aide, an aide he once referred to as his brother and also referred to as Mario Cuomo’s third son, is on trial for taking bribes,” DeFrancisco said.

DeFrancisco said it is hard to believe the governor did not know what was going on in his own office.

“Andrew Cuomo, notorious for being a micro manager, expects us to believe that he knew nothing about it,” DeFrancisco said.

Ed Cox, head of the state’s Republican Party, has said that testimony in the trial, including Percoco’s use of the state offices while he was not an employee, shows that Cuomo fostered a “culture of corruption and disrespect for the law.”

The trial, in federal district court in Manhattan, will heat up on Monday when the prosecution’s star witness, former longtime Cuomo associate and lobbyist Todd Howe, is scheduled to begin his testimony. Howe has already pleaded guilty to eight felonies.

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.