About a year ago, Steven L. Aiello, who was several years out of college, landed a prestigious new job as a policy adviser to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But like many others who have worked on the Capitol’s second floor, Aiello was not actually paid by the governor’s office.
Instead, records show he drew his salary as a “project assistant” in the Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which manages New York’s military forces.
Aiello has since gained attention because his father, prominent Syracuse-area developer Steven F. Aiello, is among eight people indicted last week in a sprawling state corruption scandal. In part, Steven F. Aiello is charged with demanding that his son receive a $5,000 raise in the new job, which was facilitated by Joe Percoco, an indicted former top Cuomo aide who allegedly took bribes from the developer and others.
Beyond the scandal, however, this type of hiring-by-proxy within the governor’s staff is far from rare. In fact, more than 40 percent of the people who currently work in Cuomo’s office are paid not by the Executive Chamber but by separate agencies or public authorities, according to a Times Union analysis of records.
For instance, two well-paid Cuomo speechwriters are technically drawing their salaries from little-noticed state entities.
Observers of state government say the practice of loading up the governor’s staff with people not officially on its payroll has been ongoing for decades. E.J. McMahon, research director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, said it has quietly allowed governors to expand their staffs while escaping criticism for increasing their budgets. Still, the full extent has not been previously known.
“It’s an accountability and transparency issue,” McMahon said. “It’s done so that the Executive Chamber staff doesn’t look so big. That’s the only conceivable reason they’d do it.”
The governor’s office recently provided a list of the 209 people it says work for the chamber, in response to an open records request by the Times Union.
But recently provided payroll records from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office state that the Executive Chamber itself is only paying 120 employees.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the number of state workers had gone down during the governor’s tenure.
“The state payroll has been reduced by more than 10,000 staffers during this administration,” Azzopardi said. “To focus on 80 slots is absurd.”
The employees working for the chamber but not being paid by it receive their paychecks from a range of agencies, as well as from quasi-governmental state public authorities.
In some cases, the title of an agency employee in the Executive Chamber seems to match up with the mission of the agency paying the person. For instance, a Department of Health employee working in the governor’s office holds the title of “assistant secretary for mental hygiene” for Cuomo.
In a number of other cases, however, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between who’s paying the state employee and the person’s job in the Executive Chamber.
In the example of Steven L. Aiello, emails contained in Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s complaint show a concerted effort to move the younger Aiello from a job in the state’s affordable housing agency, Homes and Community Renewal, to the governor’s office.
The vehicle was the Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
In September 2015, Aiello’s father allegedly wrote a text to lobbyist Todd Howe – who has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Percoco to take bribes from the elder Aiello — angrily demanding a raise for the developer’s son.
“I just got a call from (my son), he got his paperwork for his raise. He went from 54 thousand a year to 56 thousand!,” the senior Aiello wrote. He added that his son “bust(s) his ass, loyal as the day is long. I have been loyal as the day is long. They insult us like this. I’m finished!!!”
Howe forwarded the text to Percoco, who took action.
“What happened to (Aiello’s) raise when he was moved to policy team,” Percoco emailed to several state employees. “I am told he never got it. Also, we discussed moving him out of HCR?”
“We moved him out of HCR,” replied an Office of General Services employee, who was not identified in the complaint. “Didn’t know it was supposed to be with a bump. 10%?”
“This is another stupid blunder,” Percoco replied.
In his new job working in the governor’s office, Steven L. Aiello did end up getting his salary bumped to $62,000 several days later — on the payroll of Military and Naval Affairs. He left the governor’s office earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s current well-paid speechwriting staff is also on the payroll of other state entities.
In March 2015, the governor announced the hiring of Tom Topousis, formerly a veteran New York Post reporter, as director of speechwriting and special adviser to Cuomo’s communications director.
Topousis, however, has been earning his $125,000 salary as a “special assistant” at the Office of Children and Family Services, according to the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY.net website.
Also joining the speechwriting team in February 2016 was Cuomo’s senior speechwriter, Jamie Malanowski, a longtime magazine journalist and the former national editor of Spy magazine.
His $120,000 salary has been paid by the Affordable Housing Corp., a quasi-governmental agency that helps subsidize affordable housing projects, according to the Authorities Budget Office.
There are a number of other examples, including Ryan Dalton, who the past several years has held the title of deputy director of the governor’s Washington office.
His $109,000 salary has been paid by the Environmental Facilities Corp., a quasi-governmental authority that provides low-cost capital and expert technical assistance for environmental projects.
In January 2015, Cuomo announced the hiring of Kamilah Smith, a former official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as the state’s assistant deputy secretary for Homeland Security at an annual salary of $122,000.
Smith, however, has been on the payroll of the Housing Trust Fund, another quasi-governmental authority that provides grants to affordable housing projects.
Most state employees get their jobs through the competitive civil service system. But agency or authority heads are also allowed to make these types of political appointments outside the normal restrictions.
If a state agency can function with one of its political appointees working in the governor’s office, it raises questions as to why the person was needed at the agency in the first place, said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. And if the person was needed but was transferred anyway, that also raises questions.
“Political appointments are often rewards to the politically faithful,” Horner said. “Generally speaking, there need to be fewer political appointments, and more reliance on the civil service system.”
© 2016 Times Union