Was Cuomo's Former Top Aide Vetted Before Returning To State Service?

May 16, 2016

Joseph Percoco, former executive deputy secretary for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during a news conference in Albany, N.Y. in 2013.
Credit Mike Groll / AP

With his former top aide facing a federal probe for potential conflicts of interest for consulting work, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) has said twice now that he did not know what the former close associate of the Cuomo family was up to. 

Percoco left state service earlier this year for a job at Madison Square Garden.

But it turns out that the governor had not one, but two ways to know if his current or former top aides have any business deals that could present an ethical conflict.

Cuomo initially said he did not know which clients Joe Percoco might have represented while he was off the state payroll for six months in 2014, managing the governor’s re-election campaign.

“Joe left state service, and went into the private sector, he consulted for my campaign,” Cuomo said on May 2. “I knew he might be accepting consulting arrangements with other companies, but beyond that, no.”

A day or two later, the state ethics commission released Percoco’s financial disclosure form, which had been filed in May 2015. Percoco said he received up to $125,000 for consulting work from two companies, Clough, Harbor & Associates and COR Development. Both are key developers on economic development projects and among Cuomo’s top contributors.

Percoco has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and it’s unclear whether any laws were broken, since it’s legal to consult for clients with business before state government, as long as when Percoco re-entered state service, he did not have direct dealings with those issues. It’s not known exactly what kind of consultation Percoco provided.

Cuomo, in his second public appearance since the news of the subpoenas from the U.S. attorney broke in late April, told reporters on May 10 that it would be unrealistic for a manager to know all of the private business dealings of his aides.

“The state has tens of thousands of employees,” Cuomo said. “They’re not supposed to be cross-examined to make sure they’re following the rules.”

But it turns out that if you’re one of the state employees who works in the governor’s top inner circle, you are, essentially, cross-examined. As reported in Politico New York, there is a second way, other than the state ethics board, for a curious chief executive to find out if his top aides represented outside clients that might pose a potential conflict of interest.

Top assistants to the governor are routinely vetted in a process that includes details about income sources.

The governor’s top counsel, Alphonso David, confirms in a statement that “new employees fill out financial disclosure documents and undergo state police background checks.”

David says the process applied to Percoco but that he can’t release any of those documents while the federal probe, as well as an investigation ordered by Cuomo himself, are completed “in order to respect the integrity of the inquiries.”

“We don’t know the whole story,” said Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner worked briefly for Cuomo when the latter was attorney general. Horner says he was thoroughly vetted for the job, which he left after about a year; he’s since gone back to reform advocacy work.

He says there’s no way of knowing, though, whether Percoco’s rehiring forms were actually viewed by the governor or other top aides around him, but he says there’s a simpler way to have determined if any conflicts existed.

“You could have asked,” Horner said. “We’re in this intense environment where the legislative leaders are looking at prison time.”

Horner says in the current climate, top politicians should perhaps be looking more closely at weak spots in their administration where there could be potential conflicts. “Anytime you give that short shrift, you’re just asking for trouble,” he said. “And that may be what happened here.”

Horner says in the remaining months of the legislative session, the governor and legislature should take steps to address some of these conflicts, but he says so far, the response has been “tepid.”