WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court seemed ready Monday to side with a onetime top aide to ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others convicted of corruption related to an upstate economic development project dubbed the Buffalo Billion.
Both liberal and conservative justices seemed sympathetic to the group over approximately two and a half hours of arguments. The cases are the latest in which the high court could narrow the use of federal fraud charges against state and local officials, as well as people doing business with governments, even if those interactions appear to be unsavory.
Two years ago, the high court threw out the convictions of political allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over the “Bridgegate” scandal that involved four days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. And in 2016 the high court threw out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In the current cases, almost the entire court signaled that prosecutors also overreached, suggesting that the government's interpretation of federal law was so broad it would allow for the conviction of skilled lobbyists and not just corrupt public officials.
The Buffalo Billion development project was intended to revitalize parts of Buffalo and other upstate areas. But the project was a multi-year black cloud over the Cuomo administration and was frequently cited by critics as proof that the Democrat failed to address chronic corruption in state government, even within his own administration. Cuomo resigned last year amid sexual harassment allegations.
The justices are considering an appeal from Joseph Percoco, a former aide so close to Cuomo that he considered him like a brother, as well as Syracuse real estate executive Steven Aiello. The court also is weighing a separate appeal in a Buffalo Billion-linked case involving Aiello, Louis Ciminelli, Joseph Gerardi and Alain Kaloyeros.
Ciminelli and Gerardi are developers, while Kaloyeros had been one of Cuomo’s top economic development advisers and a former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute.
Percoco was convicted of accepting over $300,000 from companies seeking to influence the Cuomo administration as it worked on the Buffalo Billion project. He was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison, a conviction upheld on appeal. An online database of federal inmates puts his release date from custody in early 2023.
Prison terms for the other men were put on hold while their appeals play out.