he feds’ Albany corruption probe inched closer to Gov. Cuomo Thursday with the unsealing of charges against two of his most trusted former aides — who imitated “Sopranos” mobsters by using “ziti” as a code word for alleged cash payoffs tied to the governor’s pet upstate projects.
Longtime Cuomo family loyalist Joseph Percoco — whom the governor once called a “third son” to his late father, Mario — was accused of pocketing more than $315,000 in bribes by shaking down a Maryland-based energy company and a Syracuse development firm in pay-to-play schemes.
Disgraced lobbyist Todd Howe, who hired Percoco as an intern for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, was also revealed to have secretly pleaded guilty Tuesday to a slew of graft and tax charges in a deal to cooperate with authorities.
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Howe’s admitted crimes involve pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers to rig bids on multimillion-dollar state contracts linked to the upstate Buffalo Billion economic-revitalization plan — at the same time he was working as a consultant to the taxpayer-funded program.
The feds’ investigation of Cuomo’s prized project was first revealed by The Post in September.
Evidence in the case includes multiple e-mails in which Percoco and Howe referred to bribe money as “ziti,” according to a sprawling, 79-page criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court.
“OK. will deal with it after I get my ziti!” Percoco allegedly wrote to Howe on July 23, 2014.
Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said the “colorful, coded term” was “apparently lifted from an episode of ‘The Sopranos’ ” in which a character lost 45 “boxes of ziti” — or $45,000 — during an all-night poker game with players including the real-life Frank Sinatra Jr.
But Percoco and Howe were allegedly much smaller-time crooks, with an e-mail mentioning “7500 boxes of zitti [sic],” referring to just $7,500, court papers say.
In addition to cash payoffs, Percoco is accused of accepting “personal benefits” that included fishing trips in August 2010 and February 2011 and lunch at a Manhattan steakhouse on Dec. 23, 2010, just days before Andrew Cuomo took office as governor.
Percoco also got the energy company — Competitive Power Ventures — “to donate a private jet to transport the governor and his staff to campaign events” during the week leading up to his 2010 election, court papers say.
When asked if he was willing to give Cuomo, who was not charged, a “clean bill of health,” Bharara did no such thing.
Press Bharara announces that nine defendants including Joseph Percoco, former executive deputy secretary to the governor and Alain Kaloyeros, President of SUNY Polytechnic Institute charged with Federal Corruption and Fraud Offenses.Photo: Steven Hirsch
“There is no allegation of wrongdoing or misconduct by the governor anywhere in this complaint. That’s all I’m going to say,” Bharara said.
Bharara — who already has won corruption convictions against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos since Cuomo disbanded the Moreland Commission on corruption at the state Capitol — also declined to say if investigators had interviewed the governor as part of the continuing probe.
“I will tell you, I really do hope there’s a trial in this case so all New Yorkers can see in gory detail what their state government has been up to,” Bharara said.
Cuomo’s name does crop up repeatedly in the complaint.
It notes that campaign contributions to the governor poured in from executives, relatives and entities connected to the allegedly bribe-paying companies as soon as those businesses began pursuing state projects.
Cuomo got $375,000 in campaign cash from COR Development of Syracuse and $100,000 from LPCiminelli of Buffalo, the complaint notes.
And CEO Louis Ciminelli hosted a $250,000 fund-raising dinner for Cuomo in 2013.
Also charged was Alain Kaloyeros, a Ferrari-driving scientist who was paid nearly $900,000 this past fiscal year to run the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which is administering the Buffalo Billion project.
Kaloyeros is accused of scheming with Howe to steer lucrative contracts to LPCiminelli and COR, which Howe allegedly squeezed for $35,000 in payoffs.
Ciminelli executives Louis Ciminelli, Michael Laipple and Kevin Schuler, and COR execs Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi were also charged by the feds, as was Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr. of Competitive Power Ventures.
During the time he was allegedly on the take, Percoco wore two hats for Cuomo — working on the state payroll as his executive deputy secretary and also taking leave between April and December 2014 to manage Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
But while he was supposed to be working outside the government, Percoco “continued to function in a senior advisory and supervisory role with regard to the governor’s office . . . and continued to be involved in the hiring of staff and the coordination of the governor’s official events and priorities” — including “travel with the governor on official business,” the feds say.
Court papers allege that Percoco’s motive for corruption was a cash crunch created when he and his wife, Lisa Toscano-Percoco, bought a house in Westchester for $800,000 in July 2012, after which she left her job as a New York City schoolteacher.
As a result, the couple’s monthly income dropped from around $12,700 to less than $8,600 — while their expenses were at least $20,000 “and their savings were] close to being depleted,” the feds say.
Percoco allegedly leaned on Competitive Power Ventures to create a $90,000-a-year job for his wife that required as little as two hours of work a month in exchange for his pulling strings for the company in connection with its plans for electrical plants upstate and in New Jersey.
He is also accused of getting COR Development to funnel $35,000 in payoffs to him through a shell company set up by Howe, then performing official favors that included securing the release of $14 million in previously awarded state funds and scoring a “substantial raise” for Aiello’s son, who worked in the Executive Chamber.
In December, Percoco was hired by Madison Square Garden for a newly created position of senior vice president.
Cuomo publicly lamented Percoco’s arrest, saying, “If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed . . . “Like my father before me, I believe public integrity is paramount.”
Percoco, Kaloyeros and Kelly appeared in Manhattan federal court, and were released on bonds ranging from $50,000 to $300,000. Ciminelli appeared in federal court in Buffalo with four co-defendants. He was released on $300,000 bond.
Daniel C. Oliverio, Ciminelli’s lawyer, denied the charges and said, “I wish everyone would withhold their judgment until we’re done in this case.”
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