The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously reversed the bribery conviction of a longtime aide and friend to the Cuomo family, limiting when prosecutors can bring public corruption cases.
Joseph Percoco, who served as an aide to former New York Democratic Govs. Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo, was convicted in part over helping a real estate developer avoid needing to enter a costly labor agreement in exchange for a $35,000 payment.
A jury had found Percoco guilty of depriving the government of “honest services.” His case now returns to a lower court, where he could have his entire conviction invalidated.
Percoco worked in the governor’s office before and after, but he argued he couldn’t have committed honest-services fraud because he was a private citizen — working as the younger Cuomo’s reelection campaign manager — for the entirety of the scheme.
At trial, the jury was instructed to determine if Percoco had, as a private citizen, a “special relationship” with the government and had “dominated and controlled” government business.
“We conclude that this is not the proper test for determining whether a private person may be convicted of honest-services fraud, and we therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings,” conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
Percoco argued upholding his conviction would effectively criminalize lobbying, since it involved his conduct as a private citizen. The Justice Department contended that it could bring the charges against Percoco because of his influence with the Cuomos and state agencies.
Percoco was also convicted on a separate scheme, although that was related to when he worked in the governor’s office as executive deputy secretary.
The court’s decision on Thursday builds on its previous cases that limits the reach of public corruption cases. The court in recent years tossed the convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who were convicted in connection with closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
“Building on its decisions in McDonnell and Kelly, the Supreme Court has issued a unanimous opinion holding that the Government cannot use vague fraud statutes to advance novel and sweeping theories in prosecutions of political actors,” Yaakov Roth, Percoco’s lawyer, said in a statement.
“As in McDonnell and Kelly, this prosecution of Joe Percoco was an abuse of the federal fraud statutes; it blurred the fundamental line between private citizens and public officials. We are gratified that the Court agreed with our position that he was not a public official during the relevant time period, and so he did not violate federal law by acting on behalf of private clients,” Roth added.
—Updated at 11:57 a.m.