Before the sexual harassment scandal that took New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo down, there was the bribery and fraud scandal that shook his administration but never quite reached the governor himself.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a pair of cases related to that earlier Cuomo-era bribery scandal, which could set major federal precedent for fraud cases to come. Depending on how the court rules, it could narrow the scope of public-corruption laws and make it tougher to prosecute such cases in the future — as well as potentially overturn convictions tied to a $1 billion economic-development program that was a pillar of the then-governor’s first term in office.

First, the court heard arguments from an attorney representing longtime Cuomo aide and confidant Joseph Percoco, who claims part of Percoco’s 2018 bribery conviction should be overturned because he was the governor’s political campaign manager — and was briefly not on the government payroll — at the time he took $35,000 from a Syracuse developer who leaned on him for favors.

Then the court heard arguments from an attorney for Buffalo developer Louis Ciminelli, who was convicted of rigging the bid for a major contract related to Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion redevelopment program — despite no bribe money changing hands, which is at the center of Ciminelli’s appeal.

Together, the two cases ask whether federal attorneys overreached when they prosecuted Percoco and a number of Cuomo allies, including Ciminelli and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros.

Here’s what’s at stake:

When, if ever, is someone a public official if they aren’t on the government payroll?

In 2018, Percoco was convicted of accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from a pair of companies with business before the state: Competitive Power Ventures, which was building a natural gas power plant in Orange County, and COR Development, a Syracuse-area builder.

Percoco’s appeal to the Supreme Court focuses on the $35,000 he received from COR. In exchange, Percoco helped quash a labor requirement that would have inflated COR’s costs for a Syracuse-area project. He also pushed to approve a raise for the son of a COR executive who was working for Cuomo.

For a period of time in 2014, when Cuomo was running for reelection, Percoco was off the government payroll and serving as the governor’s campaign manager — which was when he took COR’s money.

Percoco’s attorney, Yaakov Roth, argued before the court that distinction makes all the difference. Since he wasn’t a public official at the time, Roth claims Percoco didn’t have a “fiduciary duty” to the government — therefore, he can’t be convicted of defrauding the public.

“He possessed no legal authority to bind the state or make decisions for it,” Roth told the justices. “What he did have, like many lobbying groups and interest groups and others, is influence … but none of that creates a fiduciary duty to the public.”

The attorney for the federal government, however, made the case that Percoco was “functionally” a public official.

Percoco remained Cuomo’s closest ally and held significant sway within the government, blurring the line between politics and government work. He retained access to his government office, secretary and phone system, which he used frequently while running Cuomo’s campaign. And after the governor won reelection, Percoco quickly returned to his government job — executive deputy secretary, a title that undersold his role as Cuomo’s top confidant and enforcer.

“This rule would allow an individual to formally leave government for a single day, accept a bribe in exchange for ordering government employees to take official action, and return to formal employment without penalty,” Nicole Frazer Reaves, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general who argued the government’s case, told the court Monday.

The court’s conservative justices peppered Reaves with skeptical questions about her arguments, with Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch making the comparison to presidents who have maintained outside advisors with their own clients.

“Presidents have had kitchen cabinets since the beginning of time,” Gorsuch said. “And those people are often taken quite seriously in the halls of government, whether they should be or not.”

What constitutes fraud when there aren’t bribes or kickbacks?

At trial in 2018, a jury convicted Ciminelli, Kaloyeros and two COR executives of wire fraud for allegedly rigging the bid of lucrative contracts tied with the Buffalo Billion — Cuomo’s plan to spend $1 billion in state funds to jumpstart the economy in the state’s second-largest city.

It allegedly worked like this: Cuomo entrusted Kaloyeros’ SUNY Poly to oversee major economic development projects in Buffalo and Syracuse, including the building of a major Tesla factory slated for Buffalo. Kaloyeros then tailored the bid for contracts linked with the project to suit Ciminelli’s company, LPCiminelli, and COR.

The two companies ultimately won the contracts, which made them the “preferred contractors” of SUNY Poly’s real-estate arm and led to the two companies receiving huge construction contracts, including a $750 million contract for LPCiminelli.

In order to be convicted of wire fraud, federal law suggests the plaintiffs must have deprived their victims of money or property, in most cases. In this case, no bribes or kickbacks changed hands. Instead, Ciminelli, Kaloyeros and their co-defendants were convicted — at least in part — of defrauding the SUNY Poly real-estate arms of their “right to control” the bidding process and the Buffalo Billion funding, which, the government argued, amounted to their property.

The Supreme Court took up the case on the basis that it would be deciding whether that “right to control” theory is constitutional.

But during arguments, Eric Feigin, the deputy solicitor general arguing the prosecution’s case, seemed to concede that the legal theory was suspect, saying it’s “become clear that it's an awkward fit with property fraud as it's been traditionally understood.”

Instead, he suggested the jury’s conviction should be upheld anyway under a more narrow theory: That Ciminelli, Kaloyeros and their co-defendants “fraudulently induced” the SUNY Poly affiliates into awarding the contracts. In other words, Feigin said, the victims were “tricked into paying for something fundamentally different from what they bargained for.”

“We would say that that's fraud, and it's always been fraud in common law,” Feigin told the court. “And that's exactly the paradigm in this case, in which the petitioner and the other defendants schemed to obtain $750 million … by rigging the bidding process and lying about it.”

Michael Dreeben, Ciminelli’s attorney, urged the court to toss Ciminelli’s conviction entirely and not allow the government to retry the case under the “fraudulent inducement” theory.

“I don't see how the government can maintain, simultaneously, that the right-to-control theory is invalid, and that somehow this case gets to be retried under its new legal theory,” Dreeben told the court.

What happens next?

The Supreme Court will deliberate and decide whether the convictions should be overturned, and just how wide-reaching of a precedent it wants to set.

That will happen over the coming weeks and months. The court’s current term runs into late June.