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Andrew Cuomo is Governor of New York. He is running for his third term. The New York Times endorsed him in the Democratic primary. The next day, it wrote an editorial about the swamp of corruption in Albany.
Eight days after Cuomo’s primary victory, the Times published this article about his closest aide, who was convicted of accepting bribes. The code word for bribe was “ziti.”
Why Joseph Percoco’s Conviction Matters, Especially to Governor Cuomo
“Thursday will not be a good day for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“One of his former closest aides and friends, Joseph Percoco, will be sentenced at 2 p.m. for his conviction in March on federal corruption charges.
“Mr. Percoco, 49, held the title of executive deputy secretary, but that didn’t begin to describe how powerful and important he was to Mr. Cuomo. With Mr. Percoco almost certainly heading to prison, here are five things to know about the case and its importance.
“Who Is Joseph Percoco?
“Mr. Percoco was viewed as a behind-the-scenes muscle man and logistics specialist, who handled preparations for many of the governor’s events. Mr. Percoco had also been close to Mr. Cuomo’s father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and was described by Andrew Cuomo as “my father’s third son, who I sometimes think he loved the most.”
“But after a nearly eight-week trial, Mr. Percoco was found guilty of soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from executives working for two companies with state business in return for taking official actions to benefit the firms. Much of the money came in the form of a “low-show” job given to his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, by an energy firm that wanted to build a power plant in the Hudson Valley.
“Mr. Percoco’s trial symbolized what prosecutors, good government groups and Mr. Cuomo’s political opponents have said was Albany’s culture of influence peddling and secret deals, under the governor’s watch.
“Indeed, Mr. Percoco’s name became a campaign watchword for corruption for Cynthia Nixon, Mr. Cuomo’s vanquished primary rival, and it is certain to remain so in the upcoming general election, where Mr. Cuomo, who is seeking a third term, will face off against Marcus J. Molinaro, a Hudson Valley Republican.
“Corruption in Albany? Say it ain’t so.
“If the Percoco conviction had a familiar ring to it, there’s good reason: It was the first of two major corruption cases to buffet Mr. Cuomo’s administration this year, and one of several to shake the state capital in his second term.
“In July, Alain E. Kaloyeros, the former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, was found guilty in a case involving the governor’s signature upstate economic development project, the Buffalo Billion. Mr. Kaloyeros, once hailed as a genius by Mr. Cuomo, was convicted in a bid-rigging scheme that included a state-funded $750 million solar panel factory on the banks on the Buffalo River.
“That case was sandwiched between the retrials and convictions of two other major Albany figures: Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, and Dean G. Skelos, the former Republican State Senate leader, who was convicted days after Mr. Kaloyeros on bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges.
“Albany has had dozens of politicians convicted of various misdeeds over the last decade or so. Indeed, even when Albany tries to take on corruption, it sometimes ends up with more scandal. In 2014, Mr. Cuomo was heavily criticized for interfering with and eventually shutting down a corruption commission that he himself had set up.
“What was the trial’s most pivotal moment?
“Todd Ransom Howe was the star prosecution witness for good reason. Once one of Albany’s better-known lobbyists, Mr. Howe — like Mr. Percoco — had a relationship with the Cuomo family dating back to Mario’s time in the Executive Mansion, working for the elder Mr. Cuomo as a traveling aide. He later served under Andrew Cuomo at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, working as his deputy chief of staff. All the while, he was friendly with Mr. Percoco.
“Still, financial and professional problems soon flared up for Mr. Howe, including a 2003 bankruptcy and a felony theft charge in 2010 after he made a fake bank deposit.
“Prosecutors said Mr. Howe engineered the bribes paid to Mr. Percoco, and Mr. Howe pleaded guilty to eight felonies and was cooperating with prosecutors. But his star turn on the witness stand nearly backfired when he admitted in court that he had violated the terms of his cooperation deal by trying to defraud a credit card company. He was jailed midtrial, although he later returned to testify, and Mr. Percoco was convicted.
“Considering Mr. Howe’s notoriety, it is not surprising that the Cuomo administration has sought to downplay Mr. Howe’s connection to the current governor. But in August, The New York Times obtained nearly 350 pages of emails, showing that Mr. Howe had entree to the top levels of Mr. Cuomo’s administration for years and in the months leading up to Mr. Percoco’s arrest.
“But Mr. Howe’s most lasting legacy may be his — and Mr. Percoco’s — widespread use of a single word: ziti.
“Other than the drama surrounding Mr. Howe, a sideline curiosity emerged during testimony and email exchanges showing that Mr. Percoco and Mr. Howe joked and fretted about bribes, which they had code-named “ziti,” a term used in the HBO mob drama “The Sopranos.”
“Typical was this kind of exchange, after a payment from a company to Mr. Percoco was slow to arrive.
“I have no ziti,” Mr. Percoco wrote. Another time, Mr. Percoco seemed more testy. “Where the hell is the ziti???” he wrote.
“On yet another occasion, Mr. Howe wrote to Mr. Percoco about “Operation Ziti Replenishment.”
“The pasta parlance almost became a running joke during the trial, but it also provided a powerful symbol for the prosecution to invoke in the complex case. In the government’s closing argument, a prosecutor, David Zhou, cited the emails from Mr. Percoco, who he said was “begging, requesting, demanding” ziti.
“He was demanding cash bribes,” Mr. Zhou said.
“And in the end, the jury agreed.“