By Tony Farina
Gov. Andrew Cumo’s right-hand man used “ziti” as innocent slang for money, not as a covert code for ill-gotten gains, according to his defense attorney.
Now that’s worth some thought. Imagine, Joseph Percoco, the governor’s former top man who is on trial for receiving more than $300,000 in bribes from businessmen who wanted his help on deals with the state, was not really trying to cover up anything, just talking about money like anybody would, just substituting “ziti” for fun, I guess.
The “ziti” term for money that has emerged in the federal corruption trial of Percoco and three business executives involved in the alleged pay-to-play corruption scheme, is just one of the juiciest pieces of scandal that has become public in the case that is a major black eye for the governor even if he’s not a defendant.
For many, it is inconceivable that the aide who had the run of the governor’s office–even while he was not on staff and working on the campaign–could have cleared the path for the businessmen to get their deals with the state and Cuomo, who got some campaign “ziti” thrown in, without Cuomo knowing anything.
And there’s much more as another former top Cuomo aide, former lobbyist Todd Howe, told the jury this week how he arranged for “ziti replacement” for Percoco in 2014 while Percoco was working on Cuomo’s re-election campaign, all part of the deal to take care of Percoco in exchange for his help on getting development projects for the businessmen alleging paying the bribes.
Defense attorneys claim Howe is lying about the bribery scheme to help himself as he faces a potential 130-year jail term on his guilty plea to eight felonies in the case involving Percoco.
Where it will end, nobody knows for sure. And how much more will Cuomo’s name come up in this trial as the government presses its case against the man who insiders say was the governor’s enforcer? That, of course, was before the government raided his home as the corruption case gathered steam, prompting a call from Percoco to the governor advising him that his house was being searched by investigators.
But wait, there is much more still to come after this trial. How about the upcoming Buffalo Billion fraud and bribery case which was split off from the Percoco trial but involves a similar pay-to-play scheme in the governor’s signature Buffalo development project at Riverbend. How much more damage will Cuomo suffer as that case unfolds even though, as in the Percoco trial, he is not a defendant.
For Cuomo, who boasts a $31 million campaign war chest, it is all playing out as though he knew nothing and had blinders on even while raking in the campaign cash. Now remember, we’re talking about two of his top aides and several projects, including the Buffalo Billion, that involved huge state payoffs to contractors fortunate enough to land the deals. One can only surmise that contractors who were fortunate to land the state projects were very grateful as the “ziti” payments to Percoco suggest, as alleged in his trial. And it was Percoco who was allegedly bribed because he could get to the governor.
Remember the Hamister Hotel deal in Niagara Falls, when Buffalo developer and Cuomo contributor Mark Hamister won the hotel bid over several other would-be developers after a closed-door meeting even when it became clear weeks and months later that he did not have the “ziti” to deliver on his promises and it took Cuomo and the state to finally bail him out and secure the financing after four long and divisive years.
And where is Cuomo now on the expiration of the gaming compact that has left the cities of Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca without slot revenue with a final resolution months and maybe years away. Was it the state, under Cuomo’s leadership, that missed the boat–like they did on the Maid of the Mist deal– on the gaming compact that was extended a few years ago but apparently without language that continued payments to the state after 2016? Now the cities, especially Niagara Falls, are scrapping to balance budgets without the casino cash that is nowhere in sight.
Through it all, Cuomo remains insulated, surrounded by loyal minions, even Percoco, who defend him when things turn sour. I’ll toss in his Western New York top development adviser Sam Hoyt who was forced to resign his plum patronage post in a sexual harassment scandal that his accuser claims was ignored by the state and Cuomo, prompting her to file a lawsuit.
Unless something comes out in the ongoing and upcoming trials, Cuomo will continue to cultivate the image of a choir boy no matter how bad things look from the outside. With $31 million in the bank, he can scare off a lot of people who think they can do a better job for New York no matter his legacy of broken promises, high taxes, and the taint of corruption all around.