During the trial of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s former aide Joseph Percoco (which concluded Tuesday with three convictions for federal bribery) revelations of graft and corruption inside Cuomo’s office filled the headlines for six weeks.
While most of the attention focused on the $300,000 in bribes Percoco took from a Maryland-based energy company and a Syracuse-based developer, one particularly shocking non-bribery revelation was mostly overlooked by the media and the public.
Key staff in the Governor’s team were prevented from leaving their jobs for other employment. One testified that after getting a job offer at SUNY Albany, he was told if he tried to take it someone from Cuomo’s office would call the university and pressure them to rescind the job offer.
Cuomo’s most valued staff were, in effect, working as indentured servants.
Indentured servitude inside Cuomo’s office
According to Tom Precious from the Buffalo News, the practice of forbidding certain employees from leaving has been an open secret among Albany insiders for some time.
“A couple of years ago, a then-top state official told the Buffalo News about the story of a staff member who worked for Cuomo. The official… described how the staffer was desperate to move on from the hectic world of the Capitol’s second floor where the mission is made clear to staffers: your life, day and night, is to serve Cuomo.
“After a time, the staffer was offered a job – not in the lucrative private sector, but with another state government agency. The staffer got the nerve up to personally tell Cuomo of his plans. The source says Cuomo wished him well and thanked him for his service.
“Five minutes later, Percoco called the staffer. ‘You [expletive] traitor. You’re not going anywhere,’ Percoco snapped at him. The staffer remained on the job, at least for a time.”
Two weeks into Percoco’s trial, however, off-the-record stories known only to journalists gave way to under-oath public courtroom testimony.
The forgotten scandal
On January 31st, Seth Agata and Andrew Kennedy both testified about Percoco’s practices when he worked in the executive chamber.
Agata, who is currently executive director of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, confirmed that Percoco would use bullying tactics to keep important staff from leaving. He testified that Percoco would either call the staffer directly, or pressure his employer to withdraw a job offer.
Andrew Kennedy gave a specific and personal example of the hostile work environment
The well-respected former deputy director of state operations was offered a position at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany) in June 2014. Percoco had by then left working in Cuomo’s office to go work on Cuomo’s campaign for re-election. With the election in full-swing, Cuomo would obviously be reluctant to lose such a valuable member of his staff.
Kennedy wanted the job, which was just a short drive away from the Capitol building, but an unnamed Cuomo official encouraged him to stay put.
Testifying under oath Kennedy said, “Later that month, it was – I was encouraged to reconsider taking that position.” He then named Cuomo’s secretary, Larry Schwartz, and said that Schwartz told him if he did not stay put “the governor’s office would call the university and ask them to reconsider offering – providing me the job.”
As a state institution, SUNY Albany are reliant on funding from the state budget. A call from the Governor’s office would result in staff feeling enormous pressure to do as they were told.
Welcome to Hotel California
With all of the other salacious revelations from the Percoco trial, let alone the multiple federal bribery convictions, it is hardly surprising that Agata’s and Kennedy’s testimony received only limited coverage, and then was quickly forgotten. That changed yesterday when the excellent team at the Slant’s Albany Angle podcast, part of the City & State network, brought the revelations back to public attention in their review of the Percoco conviction.
The Wall Street Journal‘s Erica Orden made an excellent point that illustrated the wider problem that can result from the sorts of tactic employed by Cumo’s office:
“[T]he Cuomo administration itself has joked about the fact that people never really leave. I believe they’ve referred to it as sort of the Hotel California effect, but the very serious reality of that is that when you – state employees, government employees sometimes have not particularly comfortable salaries and sometimes people do want to leave for that reason or other reasons. And when they’re prevented from doing so, you see, in certain cases, that does in part lead to people seeking other sources of incomes. Sometimes those sources are illegal.”
While the testimony of Agata and Kennedy was meant to illustrate the character of Percoco and the working environment of Cuomo’s office, they were also indirectly explaining a possible root cause of a much bigger problem. Cumo’s administration is perceived by many to suffer from a widespread culture of corruption. Preventing staff from leaving for higher paid jobs could be an important factor encouraging unethical behavior.
Merriam Webster defines an indentured servant as “a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.” In other words, someone paid for their work, but without the option to leave. Although a common practice in America centuries ago, servitude is now widely viewed as a form of slavery, and is banned in article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Whether or not the employment practices at Cuomo’s office meet the standard of indentured servitude or not (and they very well may not) there can be little doubt that executive chamber staff were treated in an unacceptable way.
Forcing someone to give up a new job they are very eager to take is a horrible practice that no human being, let along New Yorker, should have to endure.