The corruption trial of a former close aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo has highlighted the construction of a natural gas power plant in Orange County and the lengths to which Joe Percoco allegedly used his influence to get it built.
"People, if they're in the administration and if they're at the right level, have unfettered ability to influence how contracts are being let," said NYPIRG Legislative Director Blair Horner. "Apparently, according to the U.S. Attorney's office, everyone knows that's how that system plays out that way."
Percoco faces charges that he received bribes in exchange for helping Competitive Power Ventures obtain necessary approval to build the plant. His wife received payments as well for what prosecutors say was a low-show job. The push for the plant was backed by Todd Howe, an Albany consultant with longtime ties to Cuomo and Percoco.
Also on trial is John Galbraith Kelly, accused of paying Percoco the bribes.
"That's why they showered these individuals with individual gifts, or families with gifts and campaign contributions to the governor," Horner said.
Over the course of the trial in New York City, environmental groups have protested the plant, which they say has been hazardous to the area's health. They want Cuomo to rescind state approval.
"I think it's clear to New Yorkers that something's rotten in Albany and we need to see a change," said Food & Water Watch NY organizer Lauren Shindell, "and I think if Governor Cuomo wants to distance himself, he needs to pull the plug from the CPV power plant that was built on bribes."
And for good-government groups, the trial has shown how it's easy to circumvent checks on power and influence, even with the aides to a powerful elected official, underscoring the need for new transparency laws.
"When you do that and you don't have the normal systems monitoring that process in place, people who behave badly think they can get away with it," Horner said.
Cuomo himself has declined to comment on the trial as it proceeds, saying it would be inappropriate to do so.
CPV in a statement noted none of the charges at the trial are related to the permits to build or operate the facility. The project was previously challenged in court in 2014, but upheld. And the company points out the state Supreme Court in noted the permits for the CPV Energy Center were issued on a rational basis. The permits were also upheld again on appeal.
Challenges to the permit were found to have been "lacking any evidentiary value," found Judge Catherine Bartlett. At the same time, federal energy regulators were similarly unpersuaded on appeal.