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Supreme Court throws out convictions in sweeping New York corruption probe

In two rulings the court delivered a blow to the Justice Department's efforts to root out public corruption.
Joseph Percoco former close aide to Governor Cuomo was
Joseph Percoco, who was an aide to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was sentenced on bribery and corruption charges after he accepted bribes from companies that wanted influence with the Cuomo administration.Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court delivered a double blow to federal prosecutors Thursday by throwing out corruption convictions in two cases, one of them concerning an ex-aide to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who was convicted of taking a bribe from a real estate developer.

The court in a 9-0 vote threw out Joseph Percoco's conviction for accepting the $35,000 payment when he managed Cuomo’s re-election campaign in 2014. In doing so, the justices narrowed the scope of a federal anticorruption law.

The court ruled that Percoco’s conduct was not covered by the federal law that requires that “honest services” be provided to the public. He was not working for the government at the time, so he had no duty to provide honest services, the court said.

In a separate ruling in a related case, the court invalidated a Buffalo, New York, real estate developer’s wire fraud conviction in another blow to federal prosecutors.

The court unanimously ruled for Louis Ciminelli, who the government alleged had sought to rig the bidding process for redevelopment contracts in the city.

In each case the court, whose members face claims of ethics lapses, made it harder for federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases.

Yaakov Roth, a lawyer for Percoco, said the ruling built on similar decisions in recent years in which the court stressed that "the government cannot use vague fraud statutes to advance novel and sweeping theories in prosecutions of political actors."

Ciminelli's lawyer, Michael Dreeben, said he was gratified by the court's "unanimous holding today that the government's theory of prosecution of Louis Ciminelli was invalid, root and branch."

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

In Percoco's case, prosecutors said he was only temporarily working for Cuomo’s campaign when he took the payment from developer Steven Aiello, who was seeking state funds for a construction project. Percoco worked as a senior aide to Cuomo, a Democrat, 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 the real estate payment. At the same trial, he was also convicted of another count of honest services fraud and one count of soliciting a bribe for arranging for Competitive Power Venture, an energy company with business before the state, to make payments to his wife.

He was sentenced to six years in prison for all three offenses.

The Supreme Court did not address whether the two other convictions should be thrown out, as Percoco's lawyers had argued.

Percoco appealed to the high court after the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his convictions in a September 2021 ruling. In the decision, the appeals court upheld the convictions of several others targeted in the wide-ranging New York investigation, including Ciminelli.

In the Ciminelli case, the court ruled against a legal theory that the Justice Department had relied on in other cases. Under the “right to control” theory, someone commits fraud if he or she deprives another person of “potentially valuable economic information.”

The court agreed with Ciminelli’s lawyers and other critics of the theory that fraud can be committed only if there is a loss of money or property.

Several others targeted in the investigation, including Aiello, have their own appeals pending at the Supreme Court.

Cuomo, who resigned in 2021 after he faced sexual harassment claims, was not charged.

The Supreme Court in previous rulings had already limited the scope of 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 the corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.