U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in two Cuomo-era NY political corruption cases

by Abdulhaqq Obisesan Oladimeji
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Supreme Court justices has questioned where to draw the line between political influence and political corruption as they heard arguments on two New York bribery cases, including one involving a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The justices are scheduled to hear arguments in appeals by Joseph Percoco and Louis Ciminelli, who were charged in related cases in 2016 in a corruption crackdown by federal prosecutors in Manhattan centered on the halls of the state capital of Albany.

The Supreme Court’s eventual rulings, expected by the end of June, also will affect three co-defendants charged in corruption and fraud cases during Cuomo’s tenure as governor involving state contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Supreme Court in recent years has limited the latitude of prosecutors in political corruption cases. In 2020, it threw out the convictions of two aides to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who were at the center of the “Bridgegate” political scandal. In 2016, it threw out Republican former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s bribery conviction in another ruling restricting the types of conduct that can warrant prosecution as corrupt.

The charges against Percoco and Ciminelli were brought in 2016 by former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who also pursued corruption cases against top state lawmakers including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

While Cuomo was never charged in the investigation, the case Bharara unveiled in 2016 cast a pall over his administration. Cuomo resigned as governor in 2021 in an unrelated sexual harassment scandal.

Percoco, a former Cuomo aide, was convicted in 2018 on bribery-related charges for seeking $315,000 in bribes in exchange for helping two corporate clients of an Albany lobbyist named Todd Howe seeking state benefits and business.

Percoco was sentenced in 2018 to six years in prison. Howe pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators. Real estate developer Steven Aiello, who prosecutors said orchestrated bribes to Percoco, was also convicted at trial.

At the time of the alleged offense, Percoco was no longer serving in government as the governor’s executive deputy secretary but managing Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign, a fact his lawyers said meant he could not be convicted of bribery.

His lawyers argue that Percoco’s status as a private citizen meant that his acceptance of money to convince the government to do something indicated he was not a criminal but a lobbyist, and that allowing his conviction to stand would expose the profession of lobbying more broadly to criminal charges.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021 upheld his conviction, finding that Percoco had a guaranteed job in Cuomo’s administration post-election and in the interim exercised enough influence over government decision-making to owe a duty to the public.

Ciminelli’s case focused on Howe’s role as a consultant hired to help administer Cuomo’s $1 billion revitalization initiative for the Buffalo, New York area.

Prosecutors said executives at two companies including Ciminelli, who owned a construction firm, conspired with Howe and Alain Kaloyeros, who oversaw the project’s grant application process, to rig bids to ensure contracts went to their firms.

Ciminelli was convicted at trial alongside Kaloyeros, the former president of State University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute, and developers Joseph Gerardi and Aiello. They also have asked the Supreme Court to reverse their convictions.

Ciminelli was sentenced to two years and four months in prison. A trial judge in July allowed him to be released from prison on bail after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

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