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GOP opponent says Cuomo needs to speak out about his former aide's corruption trial

Karen DeWitt

Republicans are seeking political advantage in the federal corruption trial of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former closest aide.

One of the governor’s opponents is pressuring Cuomo to answer some of the revelations in the trial about how state business was conducted, and whether a pay-to-play “atmosphere” was created.

John DeFrancisco, the Senate deputy majority leader and a Republican candidate for governor, spoke to reporters outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan on a windy winter day. He said the trial of Cuomo’s former aide, Joe Percoco, going on inside the courthouse, is revealing that Cuomo presided over a pay-to-play culture in his office, where large donors to his campaign were rewarded with special favors.

“What’s going on in the trial, in my mind, is more important that the criminal charges against a few people,” DeFrancisco said. “What we have here is an atmosphere, that to do business in the state of New York, you have to in some way pay the piper.”

Percoco and three co-defendants, all businessmen, are charged with engineering two bribery schemes. Witnesses have testified that officials with the companies Competitive Power Ventures and Cor Development organized big-ticket fundraisers for Cuomo.

They also took advantage of a loophole in campaign finance laws and bundled $125,000 in contributions, using limited liability companies to hide the true amount of their donations from the public.

All of the campaign donations are perfectly legal, as the judge in the case, Valerie Caproni, has stressed more than once to the jury. Cuomo has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Witnesses also have testified about how Percoco, while off the state payroll and managing the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign, frequented his former government offices and also gave advice to other members of Cuomo’s staff.

DeFrancisco admitted that his chances to defeat Cuomo in the race are slim; he has only a fraction of the governor’s $30 million campaign war chest, and little name recognition.

He’s not the only one trying to draw attention to the trial.

The state Republican Party is running an ad highlighting some of the allegations brought up in the courtroom.

“He became the most corrupt governor in 100 years,” a narrator intones.

But so far, it is only online and is not appearing in the state’s major television markets.

The corruption trial also has attracted the attention of national Republican organizations, who view Cuomo as a potential presidential candidate for 2020. A super PAC known as America Rising has launched a new website, thirdcuomoson.com, using the words that Cuomo’s father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, once used to describe his relationship to Percoco.

Since the trial began nearly three weeks ago, Cuomo has not commented on it, saying he respects the process and wants to let the proceedings play out.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on testimony that’s going on in that trial,” he said Thursday after an event on Long Island. “So let the trial proceed, let the jurors hear what they hear, and then they’ll make a decision.”

The governor has remained relatively secluded in Albany, but ventured out during a snowstorm Wednesday to visit a state highway garage, where he rode along in a snowplow and inspected equipment. He did not, however, tell the media about the event; it was filmed by his employees and distributed on YouTube.

DeFrancisco said Cuomo needs to “man up” and answer questions about what’s been revealed in the trial.

“The governor has to talk about this,” DeFrancisco said. “These are serious allegations.”

While Cuomo does not want to talk about the trial, he did offer his opinion on DeFrancisco’s press conference outside the courtroom.

“Clearly, this is all about politics,” said Cuomo, who added that DeFrancisco could “make a positive difference” if he supported ethics reform measures proposed by the governor, including banning lawmakers’ outside income.

DeFrancisco backs other reform measures, including a bill to provide greater oversight over the governor’s economic development projects, which are at the root of the Percoco trial and other corruption trials for additional former Cuomo associates scheduled for the spring.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.