WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday questioned whether a former aide to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was lawfully convicted of a bribery charge as he considered narrowing the scope of a federal law aimed at curbing public corruption.
The case, one of two New York corruption convictions argued Monday, centers on whether Joseph Percoco’s conduct in receiving a $35,000 payment from a real estate developer while managing Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign is covered up. by a federal law that requires “honest services be rendered” to the public. Percoco says that because he was not working for the government at the time, he did not have a duty to provide honest services.
Most of the nine justices seemed sympathetic to Percoco’s arguments and seemed concerned that allowing non-government employers to be criminally charged would attract other influential figures in the corridors of power, such as lobbyists. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch commented that Washington is “full of such people.”
Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also pressed government attorney Nicole Reaves on the question of how to draw the line between legal and illegal influence on the government.
“How do you tell that person from a lobbyist?” she asked.
On the other hand, liberal Justice Elena Kagan also seemed concerned that adopting Percoco’s argument would allow government officials to game the system by resigning from office and then receiving payments that would otherwise be seen as bribes before resuming their business. government functions.
Prosecutors say Percoco was only temporarily working for Cuomo’s campaign when he received payment from developer Steven Aiello, who was seeking state funding for a construction project. Percoco worked as Cuomo’s top aide from 2011 to 2016, except for eight months when he ran the campaign.
Percoco was convicted in 2018 on one count of honest services fraud for real estate payments. At the same trial, he was also convicted of another count of honest services fraud and one count of soliciting a bribe to arrange for Competitive Power Venture, an energy company doing business with the state, to make payments to his wife. .
He was sentenced to six years in prison for the three crimes.
The New York-based US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the convictions in a September 2021 ruling.
Percoco’s lawyers argue that because prosecutors tried to conflate the two schemes at trial, their client should get a new trial on the second set of charges if Percoco wins in Supreme Court on his honest services claim.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has already limited the reach of anti-bribery laws, most notably in a 2010 ruling in favor of Jeff Skilling, the former CEO of Enron Corp. More recently, the court in 2016 threw out Corruption convictions of former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.
The court is also hearing Monday a second case arising from the same New York corruption investigation. That case involves Louis Ciminelli, a Buffalo-based real estate developer, who was convicted of wire fraud for trying to rig the bidding process for redevelopment contracts in the city. His lawyers argue that his conduct in ensuring that his company was a preferred bidder did not rise to the level of fraud.
Several others named in the investigation, including Aiello, have their own appeals pending in the Supreme Court.
Cuomo, who resigned in 2021 after facing sexual harassment allegations, was not charged.