New York’s top ethics and lobbying regulator will demand that former Governor Andrew Cuomo return the proceeds of his book on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo has 30 days to transfer the money to Attorney General Letitia James’s office.
There are some potential complications: Cuomo placed $1 million of the book proceeds in a blind trust for his daughters. He also donated $500,000 to the United Way in upstate New York. And income tax returns that Cuomo made public last April indicated that he had not yet received the full $5.1 million that was part of the contract with his publisher.
“This is unprecedented territory because nothing like this has ever happened before,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “No one in their wildest dreams had imagined that a sitting governor – the highest paid governor in the country – would get a $5 million book contract.”
The ethics committee decided earlier this year to withdraw staff approval in 2020 for the ex-governor to write the book, which was based on the fact that Cuomo used no government funds to write it.
A report released last month by the Assembly’s Democrat-led Judiciary Committee found that Cuomo used state resources — including government personnel — to help him write the book. Cuomo and his aides have made government officials and collaborators who worked on the book do so on a voluntary basis, compared to legislative aides who worked weekends and out-of-hours on political campaigns.
In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi called the decision “political hypocrisy and duplicity at its worst.”
“Governor Cuomo received a JCOPE advisory and counsel opinion stating that government funds could not be used — and they were not — and every staff member assisting this project did so on their own time, which was reflected on their timesheets,” Azzopardi said. “If Chairman Heastie, Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Hochul’s JCOPE-appointed governors created a new norm whereby government employees cannot devote their own time to non-governmental purposes, they would all be equally prosecuted. should be under the same standard and forced to pay back the state for volunteering in their reelection campaigns.”
But witnesses told the Assembly’s investigators that they were under the impression that work on the book was voluntary, and was indeed a central focus of the governor’s office at the time.
Staff also told the researchers they were being diverted from other business, including work on the COVID pandemic, to assist in the production of the book.
“This volunteer argument makes no sense because when legislative staffers volunteer to participate in a campaign, they don’t put money into the elected official’s pocket,” Horner said.
James’s office separately examines the use of government funds to help Cuomo write “American Crisis.”
Cuomo resigned on Aug. 24 after James’s office released a report detailing the allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by Cuomo.
Cuomo attorney Jim McGuire said there will be a legal challenge if clawback is enforced.
“JCOPE’s current actions are unconstitutional, exceed its own authority and appear to be driven by political interests rather than facts and the law,” McGuire said.
It’s not yet clear whether James will demand that Cuomo return the money, and a spokesman for her office said Tuesday afternoon the committee’s resolution is still under review.
“Lawyers will fight it out over what JCOPE can do. But what is correct is that the governor has said he would not use public funds to write the book,” NYPIRG’s Horner said. “He did, and so JCOPE has a good argument.”
But there are also questions about whether incumbent governors should take advantage of their office. Some lawmakers, including Assembly minority leader Will Barclay, want to ban lucrative contracts like book deals.
“Hopefully people don’t get into public service trying to make a fortune,” Barclay said. “Here the governor made $5 million — it was no small amount.”
Cuomo had previously written a book in 2014 while in office, part of a six-figure deal that resulted in him amassing approximately $700,000 in revenue. However, the $5.1 million contract was much more generous.
And the controversy has also spread to the ethics committee itself, which initially approved Cuomo’s book. There are bipartisan calls in Albany for the commission to review.
“Ultimately, we have to scrap JCOPE,” Barclay said. “We should have a bipartisan ethics committee to cover the governor and the legislature.”