Photo by Diana Robinson
Photo by Diana Robinson

What Does the Buffalo Billion Scandal Mean for Cuomo?

by / Oct. 4, 2016 2pm EST

In the second season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano hosts an exclusive, high-stakes game of poker. Tony allows his old friend Davey to join in and even loans him 45 “boxes of ziti,” or $45,000, but Davey loses it all. Even worse, a rival of Tony’s named Richie shows up and angrily confronts Davey over another $8,000 he is owed in poker losses—another eight “boxes of ziti.” The other players abruptly end the game, humiliating Tony.

The scene seems to have resonated with Joe Percoco, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s longtime friend and former executive deputy secretary, and Todd Howe, a lobbyist who served under Cuomo at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to federal prosecutors, the two men borrowed the term “ziti” from the TV show as a code word for the money they were raking in through a bribery scheme involving several companies and state agencies. “herb — need 7500 boxes of zitti!!” Howe wrote in an email to Percoco in 2012, according to the federal criminal complaint released last month.

“yes 7500/month is her old salary,” Percoco replied, referring to payments he allegedly sought from an energy company that would be paid to his wife.

Howe later emphasized to Percoco how important it is to “keep the ziti flowing.” Another time, Howe wrote, “We don’t need an interruption in that Zitti delivery or else well really be up the creek.”

Up the creek is exactly where Percoco and Howe now find themselves, thanks to the charges brought by Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. According to the complaint, Percoco took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from an energy company and upstate developers while wielding his influence on their behalf in Albany. Howe was the middleman, connecting lobbying clients to Percoco. Alain Kaloyeros, until recently the president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, rigged bids on projects he controlled to benefit certain upstate developers. Five business executives involved in the alleged bribery schemes were also charged.

Cuomo himself was not accused of any wrongdoing—a point Bharara made clear—but it’s unclear what the political fallout will be. The governor responded quickly, hiring his own investigator when his office was subpoenaed and distancing himself from Howe and Percoco, who left the administration at the beginning of the year. He expressed disappointment at the charges against Percoco, his former right-hand man, calling them “reprehensible” and saying they would have broken the heart of his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo. And last week, he sought to pivot by announcing flashy new plans to overhaul Penn Station and the adjacent Farley Post Office Building in New York City, and passing responsibility for administration of the Buffalo Billion, at the heart of several of Bharara’s indicments, to Empire State Development Corporation president Howard Zemsky.

Yet it remains a serious blow for the governor, who has made ethics reform a prominent goal of his administration. Below, we recap how other elected officials have fared in the wake of similar scandals, check in with experts on how the scandal might alter Cuomo’s future, and identify the potential candidates who could run for governor if Cuomo steps aside.

Sia Davidoff

 Sid Davidoff 
Senior partner, Davidoff Hutcher & Citron

What is the impact on the governor? I think because of Joe Percoco and some of the other people, it was personal. It’s unfortunate, but the one good thing about this governor is he’s resilient. You see him several days after that announcement on a stage talking about a multibillion-dollar program that’s going to make it better for the city and the state. In the long term this governor is going to survive whatever happens.

What advice would you give him? He’s doing exactly what needs to be done. He’s distanced himself from the investigation. He expressed his sorrow for some of the people that were involved, and the surprise, and his statement about how Mario Cuomo would not want to be here this day. And then he goes right on to say this is New York and we have to get up and keep building.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? Let’s first get through the presidential. Then we’ve got the mayoralty. I’m not going to speculate.

Stephen Greenberg

 Stephen Greenberg 
Pollster, Siena College Research Institute

What is the impact on the governor? It’s way too early to know. The governor has been in a very narrow range. For the last two years, his favorability has been somewhere in the low- to mid-50s, his job performance has been in the low- to mid-40s. This month, his favorability was up a little, his job performance was down a little. Last month, his job performance was up a little, his favorability was down a little. Does this change how voters feel about him? It could. It may not. This does not seep through to the public. The 80-page complaint may have been a must-read for Albany insiders. It was not for the average New York state voter.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? The governor has said he is looking at re-election. He is certainly raising money. He has a 2018 campaign committee. I have no idea whether he will or he won’t. That election is 26 months away. That said, until he announces that he’s not running, I would make the assumption that he is running.

Christina Greer

 Christina Greer 
Associate professor of political science, Fordham University

What is the impact on the governor? I do think there are going to be some repercussions, especially because, at least to my estimation, his obsession with the mayor in New York City makes it such that he has not been watching the store. But there are clearly things that have gone on in Albany where I think if he had been paying a little more attention, I don’t know if it would have gotten to this level.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? There are a few scenarios. Hillary wins, she essentially rescues him and he leaves office. Hillary wins, she doesn’t decide to take him for whatever reason, and he stays, this is where we have the question mark. Because when Zephyr Teachout ran, there are a lot of prominent organizations that were afraid of the governor. So they went with the same-old same-old. I don’t know if that will necessarily be the case this time around, especially if it’s someone who can make connections across the counties and is a dynamic person and who can say I don’t have any scandals.

Lee Miringoff

 Lee Miringoff 
Director, the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion

What is the impact on the governor? Clearly, one of his pledges when he first ran was to clean up corruption and to bring about a turnaround on the ethical climate in Albany. Now, if you look at his to-do list, he’s checked off many things he wanted to accomplish. Clearly, this is not one of them. And the difference between these latest revelations and earlier cases, is this one is closer to his office. It puts a dagger into the notion that he’s been successful on cleaning up Albany.

What advice would you give him? He’s not responsible for every act that’s been taken, even those by senators or assemblymen or even closer, as in this case, on his watch. But these things do tend to get laid at the doorstep of the chief executive. And especially since it was one of his major tenets when he ran, it becomes more problematic for him. I think he needs to keep talking about transparency and meeting with the press and talking about the accomplishments he has. When the economy gets better, people tend to overlook these things.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? I don’t know, and I don’t know to speculate.

Manfred Ohrenstein

 Manfred Ohrenstein 
Senior partner, Ohrenstein & Brown, former state Senate Democratic leader

What is the impact on the governor? It’s concerning. No high government official likes to have these kinds of accusations about some of his closest staff. I’ve had a relationship with Andrew Cuomo since he was 23 and worked for his father. I was there until about 20 years ago. I find that he is incorruptible. I know him as a person. I’m sure he is very saddened by this, and the justice system will play itself out. I don’t think it will have a long impact on his career.

What advice would you give him? Keep going, keep doing what you’re doing. The United States, and New York in particular, needs to have plans for the future, and he’s just outlined it for the Northeast. This is not just a plan for New York City or the metropolitan region or even New York. This is a plan for the Northeastern region, which is still the leading economic center of the country and needs to have a new inspired goal, and that’s what he did here.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? How could he announce this and not be around while it’s all happening? I’m absolutely sure he’s going to run for re-election. And he will not only win, he will emerge, in my opinion, as a leader in the Democratic Party.

Jessica Proud

 Jessica Proud 
GOP consultant; Partner, the November Team

What is the impact on the governor? It’s going to have a huge impact because he came into office promising to clean up corruption and now he’s finding himself knee deep in it. It’s not believable to think that he had no idea what was going on right under his nose in his own administration. Even if he didn’t know, he certainly is responsible for creating a culture with an unnecessary obsession with power. He’s responsible either way.

Will he run for re-election? If so, will he win? It certainly sounds like he’s not going to let this deter him. But it would be very difficult. He’s going to have to change the way he raises his money, and that’s a huge part of it. He was only able amass a $45 million war chest because he used tactics like doling out state contracts or tax breaks to his donors. This wasn’t the only instance of this. And what’s the case for re-election? You’re knee deep in corruption, the state continues to rank dead last in the country on economic outlook, business friendliness, highest taxes, second-highest energy costs. There’s so many reasons to point to why he hasn’t done a good job.


The Executive: New York City Mayor Ed Koch 

The Scandal: Queens Borough President Donald Manes committed suicide, and Bronx Democratic Chairman Stanley Friedman and Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Meade Esposito were convicted for their roles in the Parking Violations Bureau scandal. All three were close to Koch. 

The Outcome: Koch was not implicated, but lost to fellow Democrat David Dinkins when he ran for a fourth term.


The Executive: New York Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo 

The Scandal: William Cabin, Cuomo’s chief of staff, was convicted of stealing $178,000 from the state through a payroll-padding scheme. 

The Outcome: Cuomo went on to be elected governor.


The Executive: New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller 

The Scandal: L. Judson Morhouse, the state of GOP chairman who got Rockefeller elected, was convicted for taking $18,000 in bribes in exchange for helping the city’s Playboy Club get a liquor license. 

The Outcome: Rockefeller was re-elected several times and later became vice president.


The Executive: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie 

The Scandal: Christie appointees shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013 as retribution against a local Democratic mayor as the governor was running for re-election. 

The Outcome: Two Christie associates are on trial, another pleaded guilty. Christie has not been charged. He is term-limited out, but could join a potential Trump administration.


The Executive: New York Governor Hugh Carey

The Scandal: Carey appointed Patrick Cunningham as state Democratic chairman when he was elected in 1974, but in 1976 Cunningham was indicted on corruption charges (which were dismissed) and convicted of income tax evasion in 1982. 

The Outcome: Carey was re-elected to a second term but declined to run for a third in 1982.

This article appears courtesy of a content-sharing agreement with City & State.