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Percoco found guilty on three counts in bribery trial

NEW YORK — Jurors convicted a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on federal bribery and fraud charges Tuesday in a trial that further exposed the state capital’s culture of backroom deal-making.

Joseph Percoco, who was once likened to a brother by the Democratic governor, faces up to 20 years in prison for his conviction on conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and soliciting bribes. Jurors who deliberated off and on for three weeks acquitted Percoco of extortion and one of the bribery charges he had faced.

The jury also convicted one of the businessmen charged with paying the bribes, Steven Aiello, an executive at a Syracuse-area development company, Cor Development. A second executive with the company, Joseph Gerardi, was acquitted on all charges.

The jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared in the case of a fourth defendant, energy company executive Peter Galbraith Kelly. The U.S. Attorney’s office didn’t immediately say whether it would seek a retrial.

The trial put a harsh spotlight on the attempts of several companies to gain influence with the Cuomo administration.

Prosecutors say Percoco and his family accepted more than $300,000 in bribes. They say that included a $35,000 payment from Cor Development to secure the governor’s help redeveloping a state-owned tract of land in Syracuse known as the Inner Harbor and a $90,000-a-year job for Percoco’s wife from Kelly, a former executive at Competitive Power Ventures, to clear hurdles with the state to build power plants.

Speaking outside the courthouse following the verdict, Percoco’s lawyer, Barry Bohrer, said there was “inconsistency in the verdict” and said he would explore appeal options.

Percoco thanked his family for standing by him.

“I am disappointed, but as Barry says, we are going to consider our options and move forward,” he said.

Aiello’s attorney, Stephen Coffey, called the verdict against his client “confused” and said he would file a motion to set it aside.

The U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, said in a statement that Percoco had sold “his sacred obligation to honestly and faithfully serve the citizens of New York.”

Defense lawyers had said the payments Percoco and his wife received were legitimate fees for consulting work performed at a time when he was out of state government.

Prosecutors countered by citing emails in which Percoco and cooperating witness Todd Howe referred to money using the word “ziti,” a term borrowed from the HBO mob drama “The Sopranos.”

While Cuomo himself was not accused of wrongdoing, testimony also painted an unflattering picture of the inner workings of his office.

There was testimony about administration officials using private email addresses to conduct state business in secret and about how Percoco continued to work out of a state office even after he was supposed to have left government to lead Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Cuomo, who is regarded as a contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said he respects the jury’s decision.

Cuomo said that while he is sad for Percoco’s young daughters “who will have to deal with this pain,” there’s “no tolerance for any violation of the public trust.”

“The verdict demonstrated that these ideals have been violated by someone I knew for a long time,” he said. “That is personally painful; however, we must learn from what happened and put additional safeguards in place to secure the public trust.”

The trial was the latest in a long line of corruption allegations to emerge from Albany in recent years. More than 30 state lawmakers alone have left office facing allegations of misconduct since 2000.

Two former powerful leaders in the state, ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, are scheduled to be retried on corruption charges this year after early convictions were thrown out.

Defense lawyers had relentlessly attacked Howe’s credibility during the trial, saying he was too corrupt to be trusted. Howe, who pleaded guilty to numerous crimes after cooperating with prosecutors, was arrested again during the trial when he admitted violating his deal with prosecutors by trying to avoid paying a luxury hotel bill.

Within minutes of the verdict, good-government groups called on Cuomo and lawmakers to take action this year to strengthen oversight of government contracting and boost ethics enforcement.

“Albany stays on trial,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. He called the verdict “a wake-up call to Albany to do something to clean up its ethics act.”

Trump axes Tillerson, names CIA's Pompeo chief US diplomat

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump unceremoniously dumped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday — via Twitter — and picked CIA Director Mike Pompeo to shift from America's spy chief to its top diplomat. The abrupt announcement ended the turbulent tenure of the man who reportedly called the president a "moron" but wanted to stay, and deepened the disarray in the Trump administration.

The plans to oust Tillerson had been drawn up months ago, but the timing caught even senior White House officials unawares. The firing was just the latest in an exodus of administration officials, including those in Trump's inner circle, with the president already setting records for staff turnover and several other Cabinet secretaries facing ethics investigations.

However, Trump emphatically rejected talk of chaos in his year-old administration as he nears a pivotal moment on the international stage with his planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He declared Tuesday, "I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want."

He said he was nominating the CIA's deputy director, Gina Haspel, to take over for Pompeo at the intelligence agency. If confirmed, Haspel would be the CIA's first female director. Haspel's colleagues describe her as a seasoned veteran who would lead the CIA with integrity. Human rights advocates see her as someone who supervised torture at a secret prison.

As for Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO whom Trump picked as his administration's top Cabinet official, the president said simply, "we disagreed on things."

No doubt that was true, one prime example being the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear efforts. Trump's change puts Pompeo, an ardent foe of the Iran nuclear deal, in charge of U.S. diplomacy as the president decides whether to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. Tillerson has pushed Trump to remain and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment the Obama-era deal to Trump's liking.

"We were not really thinking the same," said Trump.

Public policy aside, in the view of current and former White House officials, Tillerson's "moron" comment to senior administration officials last summer — and the subsequent revelation in the press — permanently eroded trust between the two men and it was only a matter of time before Tillerson would be pushed out.

Tillerson himself, his voice occasionally quavering, gave brief farewell remarks at the State Department, thanking department staff and diplomats around the world — but not mentioning Trump except to say that he'd spoken by phone to the president Tuesday while Trump was on Air Force One, hours after the tweeted firing.

The gulf that separated the two men was illustrated one last time by conflicting stories on the circumstances of the firing.

Trump kept the timing to an unusually close circle that included Chief of Staff John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence, officials said. Pompeo was brought into the White House Friday after returning from an overseas trip and was offered the job formally by phone Saturday.

Kelly was given the task of phoning Tillerson, who was in Africa, but the nature of their conversation was up for dispute. White House officials said Kelly told Tillerson that Trump wanted a change and he should step down. Tillerson, the White House said, asked that Trump wait until he returned to the U.S., and he shortened his trip to Africa — where much of his mission revolved around softening the impact of Trump's recent reported criticisms.

However, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein and other State Department officials said that Tillerson hadn't learned he was being dismissed until he saw Trump's early-Tuesday tweet, and hadn't discussed it directly with the president. Goldstein said Tillerson was "unaware of the reason" he was fired and "had had every intention of staying," feeling he was making progress on national security.

That was the end for Goldstein. Hours later, he was fired, too.

Pompeo forged a close relationship with Trump as a regular presence in his presidential daily briefing. Current and former White House officials said Pompeo has proven more adept at negotiating the shifting power structures inside the administration and in reading and responding to the wishes of the president. Trump is also said to respect Pompeo's military background and West Point pedigree.

Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985, didn't have to face a Senate confirmation hearing when she became deputy director of the agency in February 2017. To be director, she'll have to be confirmed by the Senate intelligence committee. That will likely mean questions about one of the darkest periods of the CIA's history.

Haspel had a front-row seat to the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques against terror suspects. Between 2003 and 2005, she oversaw a secret CIA prison in Thailand where terror suspects Abu Zubayadah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said. Waterboarding is a process that simulates drowning and is widely considered to be a form of torture.

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National Notary Association: Strough can't witness from afar

John Strough

Chris Strough

QUEENSBURY — Notaries must speak to the people who are signing documents in front of them, the National Notary Association said a day after Supervisor John Strough and his wife were arrested on charges related to mishandling notary duties in last year’s election.

Chris Strough is accused of three misdemeanor counts of violating election law by not properly notarizing signatures on Conservative Party nominating petitions last year. She has not returned a call seeking comment.

Supervisor John Strough filed the notarized petitions with the Board of Elections, saying they were done correctly. He is charged with one misdemeanor count of filing a false statement.

But he defended his wife’s work after their arrest Monday. He said she witnessed each signature from their car, watching as he asked residents to sign.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be done, according to the National Notary Association.

“One of the golden rules of the notary is awareness of the signer,” said NNA notary expert Marissa Quintero. “The notary has to ask basic questions.”

Those questions include asking whether anyone is forcing the person to sign.

The notary is also supposed to quietly evaluate the signer.

“If at any point the signer feels coerced, or is not aware, or even just heavily medicated, or elderly people are being pushed to sign, the notary has the right to refuse,” Quintero said.

The notary should also keep a journal that lists each person whose signature is notarized, Quintero said. Those journals are not required in New York State.

“But it’s highly recommended,” Quintero said. “This way, if anyone comes back to the notary and says, did you discriminate against old people by refusing to sign? You can say no, look at my journal, he was heavily medicated.”

On nominating petitions, the rules also state that the notary must “duly swear” each signor. There’s no prescribed ceremony in New York, Quintero said.

“So generally we say, ‘Signer, do you swear everything in this document is true to the best of your belief?’” Quintero said.

She stressed that notaries cannot skip that step.

The Stroughs have hired E. Stewart Jones to represent them in court. Jones noted that Chris Strough had properly notarized many signatures prior to the events in question in this case.

“He already had the signatures he needed,” Jones said. “There’s no motive for this.”

He predicted the case might be simply dismissed.

“I think you’re going to find, at the end of this process, that nothing occurred that warranted this,” he said, adding that he has never heard of a notary being charged in this way before.

The case began last summer, when Strough and supervisor candidate Rachel Seeber were competing for the Conservative Party line on the ballot. Strough was endorsed by the Conservatives, but Seeber was able to get enough signatures to force a primary.

Republicans immediately questioned Strough’s petitions. The Warren County Republican Committee hired Elite Protective and Investigative Services to ask signers whether Strough had been alone when he got their signatures. Several people said yes and signed statements to that effect.

The committee then turned those statements over to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, which sent them to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office for a special prosecutor, to avoid a conflict of interest.

The Albany District Attorney’s Office and the State Police Special Investigations Unit looked into the case and arrested the Stroughs on Monday.

The committee reported in its January financials that it paid $535 in August for the private investigator who did the work. Seeber has not yet filed her post-election financial report, which was due 27 days after the election.

John Strough

Chris Strough

Stefanik murky on Russia probe

The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, made the decision to shut down the committee’s probe into Russian meddling and collusion with the Trump Campaign, according to NY-21 Rep. Elise Stefanik’s spokesman Tom Flanagin.

Stefanik, R-Willsboro, is a member of the intelligence committee.

“There wasn’t a vote,” Flanagin said about the Monday evening announcement. “Congresswoman Stefanik believes it’s time to give the American people the information they have obtained in order to protect our nation against further Russian attempts to influence our elections.”

Despite Flanagin’s contention that Conaway made the decision, other reports about the Republican move point to the majority committee as the decision-makers.

According to the one-page majority committee summary released on Monday night, “The House Intelligence Committee has completed a draft report of 150+ pages, with 600+ citations.” The summary is published on official committee letterhead.

Additionally, in a 22-page report, “Status of the Russia Investigation,” released on Tuesday evening by the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca., the majority committee decided to end the probe.

Schiff details an extensive list of witnesses that have not yet been interviewed and documents that have not yet been released, despite month’s-old requests for the documents. He said, in the 22-page status of the Russia investigation report, the majority decision was made without the consensus of the entire committee.

“This is representative of partisanship at its worst,” NY-21 Democratic challenger Don Boyajian, of Cambridge, said in a Tuesday afternoon interview. “This is an issue of national security. This is party over country and partisanship in the worst possible way. “

When pressed by The Post-Star for an interview with the congresswoman to clarify her position regarding the Russia probe, the committee ending the investigation and the committee’s decision along party lines, Flanagin said she was too busy, despite a 6:05 p.m., Monday, request.

“Unfortunately, her schedule today is committed to House Armed Services Committee work, constituent meetings and other media interviews on this topic,” Flanagin said on Tuesday. “I would refer you to her statement on this.”

According to her prepared statement, Stefanik, R-Willsboro, believes the Russians intended to interfere with the 2016 election process. But she did not say if she agreed or disagreed with the one-page intelligence committee majority report finding that there was “no evidence of collusion, coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”

“I have been concerned about the politicization and leaks throughout this Congressional investigation, which is why I will continue to be an outspoken supporter of the Mueller investigation, which I believe is best equipped and our best hope to get to the apolitical truth,” Stefanik said in her statement on the issue.

“This is a classic Stefanik maneuver. Say one thing and do something else,” Boyajian said. “She tries to have it both ways with everything, health care, the environment. She tries to appear bipartisan. How can you make that vote (the release of the majority report) and then say the investigation is worthwhile?”

Boyajian continued.

“It’s not factually consistent with her actions,” he said. “It’s not only confusing, it’s a disservice to American people.”

Stefanik did talk to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican on Tuesday afternoon.

“I believe that we’ve seen evidence that Russia did seek to hurt the Hillary Clinton campaign,” she said to the Press-Republican. “I will continue to focus on this, both on the Intelligence Committee and in my capacity as the chair of Emerging Threats (subcommittee) to counter Russia’s undermining of democratic institutions and the electoral processes.”

The congresswoman also said in a release she believes the best way to get to the truth is through the Mueller investigation.

“I believe that they’re uniquely positioned. They have access to all witnesses and information,” she said to the Press-Republican. “They haven’t had to deal with executive privilege claims; and they haven’t had lapses in confidentiality.”

NY-21 constituent Joe Seeman of Saratoga County noted that Stefanik’s statement does not mention the majority committee conclusion.

“The House Intel Republicans spokesperson, Rep. Conaway, said that there was no evidence of collusion and that the Russians were not trying to help Trump win,” Seeman said. “But Stefanik’s statement completely omits any reference to these conclusions, although her statement includes a link to the Republicans’ statement.

“Why do you think Stefanik omitted the conclusions? Does she not agree with them? Could she be trying to falsely portray herself as somehow not part of this attempt to cover up for Trump and Putin in this unparalleled foreign attack on America’s democracy?” Seeman asked.

Stefanik did not respond to similar questions from The Post-Star.