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No sign Cuomo did wrong in new Albany graft case

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a news conference in Albany, N.Y., June 17, 2014.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a news conference in Albany, N.Y., June 17, 2014.
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— It was the worst — and, in one critical way, the best — news that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could have received.

The names of the nine individuals charged in a scheme outlined by federal prosecutors on Thursday read like a starting lineup of friends of the governor, longtime acquaintances and deep-pocketed donors and their associates, and includes one man who had come to be like family to Mr. Cuomo. And the charges within were as ugly as they come in government work: bribes, extortion, fraud, conspiracy.

If part of the governor’s job is to judge the character of those closest to him, Mr. Cuomo had seemingly failed spectacularly, damaging the reputation of the marquee projects he promoted as salvation for hard-pressed areas in upstate and Western New York, and hurting his own manicured image as a competent and ethical leader of a state mired in dysfunction.

Yet Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, could find some measure of relief in the conspicuous absence of one name on the list of defendants: his own. Despite the sordid allegations against his former aide and friend, Joseph Percoco, and Alain E. Kaloyeros, a state official whom Mr. Cuomo had repeatedly praised as a visionary, the governor makes only cameo appearances in the complaint.

And while another former aide, Todd R. Howe, is cooperating with investigators, secretly pleading guilty this week to the charges against him, the misdeeds he outlined apparently did not extend to the governor’s conduct.

Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announces public corruption charges against two former close aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior state official and six other people in New York, Sept. 22, 2016.
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announces public corruption charges against two former close aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior state official and six other people in New York, Sept. 22, 2016.

“There are no allegations of any wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor, anywhere in this complaint,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said at a news conference on Thursday where he announced the charges.

If that fell short of a pronouncement of absolution, there was still a sense in some quarters that Mr. Cuomo, while undeniably damaged and even personally pained by the accusations against friends and associates, had, by comparison, dodged the worst of it — at least for now.

“No one can say that the governor was in any way involved in this,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who has worked for the governor in the past. “He comes out of this as noncorrupt and in a position to root out corruption.”

Others seemed less sure of that, and they included an array of government watchdog groups who had followed, over the past year, the paths of the top two former legislative leaders in Albany, Sheldon Silver and Dean G. Skelos, as they were convicted on federal corruption charges. Their downfalls shook Albany, yet prompted only modest ethics reforms during this year’s legislative session.

[Local politicians react to charges leveled against Cuomo aides]

“I think there is going to be enormous pressure on the governor to use this as a road map for reform,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The problem is he’s gotten other maps before and he’s never used them.”

Mr. Horner and Mr. Sheinkopf agreed that the complaint against Mr. Percoco, which describes in excruciating detail shakedowns of businessmen and his often juvenile insults (“fat boy” was a nickname he gave to one associate), was not flattering or fun for the governor.

And distancing himself completely from the scandal will most likely prove impossible for Mr. Cuomo: There is no forgetting his well-documented praise for Dr. Kaloyeros, the now-suspended president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, or the moment last year, during a eulogy for his father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, when he called Mr. Percoco “my father’s third son.”

“He’s New York’s secret weapon, Dr. Alain Kaloyeros,” the governor said in March 2014, at an announcement of a $15 million film hub project outside Syracuse, noting the physicist’s contributions to developing the state’s nanotechnology industry, efforts that date to the administration of Mr. Cuomo’s father. “The Cuomos, we now fight over Dr. Kaloyeros and ownership of him,” he said, joking that he had helped bring Dr. Kaloyeros “into full bloom.”

On Thursday, Mr. Cuomo struck a different tone, announcing that SUNY had “rightly relieved” Dr. Kaloyeros of his duties, suspending him without pay.

Though rarely mentioned in the federal complaint, Mr. Cuomo hovers in the background of the narrative of his former aides’ misdeeds — and some of the more embarrassing revelations. Proximity to the governor and the executive chamber were the currency in which both Mr. Howe and Mr. Percoco traded, often by invoking Mr. Cuomo’s name or exploiting his presence.

In October 2010, for example, as Mr. Cuomo was running for governor, Peter Galbraith Kelly, Jr., chief lobbyist for a power company that was seeking state assistance for its plant in the Hudson Valley, arranged for the company to donate a private jet to fly Mr. Cuomo and his staff to campaign events, the complaint says. It was all part of Mr. Kelly’s bid to ingratiate himself with Mr. Percoco, according to the complaint, as it became increasingly apparent that Mr. Cuomo would be elected.

At various points, the complaint says, Mr. Howe and Mr. Percoco referred to generous donors and clients of Mr. Howe’s as “friends,” short for “friends of the governor” — people who, it seemed, could expect special treatment from the governor’s inner circle. In March 2015, according to the complaint, Mr. Howe and Mr. Percoco set up a meeting for Mr. Kelly with the governor’s secretary, a central figure in the executive chamber.

“As Joe told you, Braith is ‘family,’” Mr. Howe wrote to the secretary, referring to Mr. Kelly’s nickname, the complaint says.

In early 2014, Steven Aiello, president of the Syracuse-area developer COR Development Company, another “friend” and major donor to Mr. Cuomo, was scheduled to meet with Mr. Percoco at the governor’s office in Midtown Manhattan, according to the complaint. Mr. Howe emailed Mr. Percoco, employing an affectionate nickname the two men often used for each other, “Herb,” and dropping in a “Sopranos” reference to ziti as a slang for money: “Lay it on thick, govs loves you … Lay it on heAvy Herbie! Zitti herb! Zitti!!”

Joseph Percoco in New York, Sept. 29, 2010.
Joseph Percoco in New York, Sept. 29, 2010.

Thus prompted, the complaint continues, Mr. Percoco replied that he might have Mr. Cuomo drop by the meeting to say hello. Mr. Howe told investigators that Mr. Percoco did this so he could pressure Mr. Aiello later for more bribes.

The governor’s name came up again in September 2015, according to the complaint, when Mr. Aiello complained to Mr. Howe that he had not been invited to attend Mr. Cuomo’s events during a planned trip to Syracuse. After Mr. Percoco intervened, Mr. Aiello was asked to give the governor a tour of a new hotel he was building in the city.

The coziness depicted in the complaint makes it difficult for some to believe that Mr. Cuomo did not know something was amiss.

“It’s unrealistic with an adviser that was this close to the governor, that the governor doesn’t know what was going on,” said Doug Kellogg, a spokesman for Reclaim New York, a good-government group. Or, if Mr. Cuomo truly did not know, Mr. Kellogg added, “It’s a sign that he’s not minding the store.”

For his part, the governor barred any contact in his administration with Mr. Howe and Mr. Percoco after news broke about Mr. Bharara’s investigation in late April.

In his statement on Thursday, after the complaint had become public, Mr. Cuomo seemed to strive to differentiate himself from those facing charges, including Mr. Percoco.

“I hold my administration to the highest level of integrity,” the governor said. “I have zero tolerance for abuse of the public trust from anyone. If anything, a friend should be held to an even higher standard.”

As the statement suggested, Mr. Percoco’s downfall is likely to carry a deep sting that goes beyond politics. Mr. Sheinkopf called the arrest and charges a “personal loss” and “a disaster,” emotionally, for the governor.

“He’s never going to put it behind him,” he said. “But he will use it as a means to protect his legacy and his political reputation.”

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