Arrest of Main Witness Throws Percoco Trial Into Turmoil

NEW YORK (AP) -
Todd Howe in Albany, N.Y., June 2009. (Will Waldron/Times Union via AP, File)

The government’s star witness in the bribery trial of a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo was arrested Thursday night for violating his cooperation agreement, throwing the trial into stunning chaos.

Todd Howe, 57, was taken into custody for violating his bail conditions, but he is expected to continue his testimony in the trial of  Joseph Percoco and three businessmen when it resumes on Monday.

His arrest was approved by a judge who wrote that the government notified him that the revocation of Howe’s $100,000 bond was appropriate.

Sometimes, the government keeps cooperating witnesses detained to send a stern message that any violations will be dealt with severely. It also suggests Howe might not get as much leniency as he expected after pleading guilty to crimes that carry a potential penalty of decades in prison. And it allows prosecutors to show he was punished for his indiscretions.

Howe has testified that he hoped to avoid prison by testifying truthfully, cooperating fully and avoiding any more crimes.

Howe, shackled at the ankles, shuffled into court for a three-minute hearing Friday. A magistrate judge read him his rights, and a prosecutor said he had agreed to continued detention.

His hair seemed wind-blown, like he’d just stepped off a beach, and he was wearing a sweatshirt with a print of a Martha’s Vineyard beach permit from 2014. Martha’s Vineyard is a seaside resort town in Massachusetts that defense lawyers had highlighted as among vacation spots Howe visited while he stole tens of thousands of dollars from mortgage companies, contractors, his employer and a dog walker.

During cross examination Thursday, Howe was forced to admit that he had tried to improperly recover the cost of a $600 luxury Manhattan hotel room by cancelling the credit card charge — just weeks after signing a cooperation deal in 2016 in which he promised not to commit any more crimes.

The lawyer asked Howe if he realized he was in violation of his plea agreement.

“I sure hope not,” he said.

Then the lawyer asked whether he thought prosecutors would rip up the agreement or merely give him a stern lecture as they did when he diverted tens of thousands of dollars that he was supposed to put in escrow to pay debts of his choosing and other expenses.

“I’m not sure,” Howe answered.

Cooperators are required to tell prosecutors about all of their crimes and wrongdoing before they begin working with the government.

He also admitted failing to say in a 2014 application for disability insurance that he had been convicted of fraud in 2010 for trying to dupe a bank into thinking he had deposited $45,000 when he had not.

The government has used Howe’s testimony to prove Percoco was paid more than $300,000 in bribes in exchange for helping his co-defendants with state business.

Percoco’s lawyer, Barry Bohrer, had promised jurors they would find Howe to be too disreputable to trust his testimony. He said Percoco acted legally and appropriately.

Howe’s lawyer, Richard Morvillo, was asked after Friday’s court appearance how his client was doing.

“I’m sure you can imagine,” he said.

Howe has testified that he now lives in Idaho, where he works as a golf course groundskeeper, sometimes mowing grass and digging ditches.