The third time’s the charm.
After two failed attempts, New York state’s ethics commission voted 12 to one Tuesday to revoke the permission it granted former Governor Andrew Cuomo to write the controversial memoir that earned him a payout of $5.1 million and is now the subject of multiple investigations.
The revocation could mean Cuomo might have to forfeit some of the profits he made from Crown Publishing Group for “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” or face fines and penalties from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), though the exact process forward is not yet clear.
At the Tuesday meeting, Republican Commissioner David McNamara read out a list of reasons why Cuomo had violated the terms of his agreement with JCOPE, including that “state property, resources and personnel, including staff volunteers, were used in connection with the preparation, writing, editing and publication of the book,” which would be a violation of state ethics law.
Through an attorney, Cuomo promised to fight the commission’s decision. Cuomo has repeatedly denied any state resources were used to write his memoir, and that staff who worked on the book were volunteers.
“We look forward to vigorously contesting in court any efforts JCOPE makes to enforce this baseless and improper decision,” said Jim McGuire, an attorney who is handling Cuomo’s legal issues surrounding his book deal, which are substantial and ongoing, though Cuomo resigned in August.
There’s an open state attorney general inquiry, a soon-to-be-completed state assembly judiciary committee investigation, and a probe from JCOPE itself on how it handled the book approval process. Federal investigators are also reportedly examining the book payout as well as part of their investigation that looks at Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics confirmed the vote and declined to comment further on what penalties Cuomo might face.
JCOPE staff attorney Martin Levine signed off on Cuomo’s original request to write a memoir on July 17, 2020, without the matter ever being heard or voted on by the JCOPE commissioners, something that Republican appointees have roundly criticized since.
The terms of the deal and how much Cuomo made from it were withheld from the public for nine months, and eventually released through freedom of information requests and Cuomo’s tax returns, which he let members of the press review in April.
Levine’s approval explicitly barred Cuomo from using any state resources during the editing and drafting process, as New York state ethics law prohibits public officials from using state resources for personal benefit and from receiving money or services that might influence their official conduct in office.
However, reports later emerged that senior- and junior-level staffers had worked on the book, reinvigorating efforts among Republicans on the JCOPE commission to get the approval revoked. Those members of the commission had argued Cuomo had failed to live up to the terms of the commission’s approval.
Ethics experts have also raised a larger question about whether Cuomo’s determination to secure a book deal in the summer of 2020 influenced his administration's handling of the pandemic.
Cuomo’s administration refused to release the total death count of nursing home residents who died from COVID for nearly a year and had his administration edit an official health department report to deflate the death count. That health department report was published four days before Cuomo spoke publicly about writing a memoir for the first time.
Two prior efforts, brought forth by Republicans JCOPE commissioners in October and September, to revoke Cuomo’s book deal both failed to secure enough votes from Democrats to seal the deal. But Tuesday’s vote was close to unanimous.
The sole no vote came from William Fisher, one of two remaining Cuomo appointees to the commission.
John Kaehny, the executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany laid out several possible paths that JCOPE attorneys could take now that the book permission had been rescinded. The commission could order Cuomo to pay Crown Publishing back and sue him if he refuses. Or attorneys could fine Cuomo for the amount he made on the book and reclaim the money on behalf of the state. Either way, Kaehny said, a long and acrimonious court battle is likely to ensue.
“The long and short of it is this is nowhere near done,” Kaehny said.
Beyond the actual vote, Kaehny said there was a symbolism in the near unanimous vote against Cuomo, from an entity that long deferred to his wishes. Republicans and Democrats appointed by the state legislature and Governor Kathy Hochul all voted together.
“Albany agrees on one thing, at least,” Kaehny said. “They don’t want Andrew Cuomo back.”