Yoav Gonen, THE CITY
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo assigned staffers to spend hundreds of work hours helping with a book touting his pandemic leadership — landing him $5.2 million last year as the pandemic raged, a new investigation found.
The 60-page report released Monday by the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee determined that Cuomo’s top aide alone exchanged over 1,000 emails regarding the book between June and December 2020 — at a time when thousands of New Yorkers were dying of COVID-19.
Investigators talked to numerous senior- and junior-level staffers who said their work on the book “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic” hadn’t been voluntary.
But the probers noted that even if it had been, the hours spent took away from the workers’ response to the pandemic.
“The former governor utilized the time of multiple state employees, as well as his own, to further his personal gain during a global pandemic — a time during which the former governor touted the ‘around-the-clock’ state response to the crisis,” the report says.
The Assembly committee’s investigation, which was handled by the private law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, also confirmed prior investigative findings that Cuomo sexually harassed female state staffers while in office.
Cuomo announced his resignation as governor on Aug. 10, a week after a report commissioned and released by State Attorney General Letitia James charged he had sexually harassed multiple women.
Monday’s report counted 12 accusers total — including five women outside of state government — but focused on two: an unnamed female state trooper and Cuomo’s former executive assistant Brittany Commisso.
Both of them were included in the attorney general’s investigation, while Cuomo is facing a separate criminal complaint in the Commisso case.
“We find that there is overwhelming evidence that the former governor engaged in multiple instances of sexual harassment,” the Assembly report concluded.
Nursing Home Numbers Eyed
On two other matters — whether the Cuomo administration purposely withheld damning nursing home death statistics and opened a bridge connecting Rockland County to Westchester with known safety risks — the report found no proof of misconduct.
Investigators noted that Executive Chamber and Department of Health officials could have been quicker and more transparent in their public accounting of nursing home death totals, which excluded thousands of deaths of patients transferred to hospitals who later died.
A July 6, 2020, Department of Health report employing that calculus put the total nursing home deaths in New York at roughly 6,500, when the figure then was closer to 10,000.
Some staffers offered reasonable excuses , the report says, including that data from hospitals was more difficult to confirm.
But other staffers said the higher figure would have clashed with publicly released numbers and with the goal of the July 6 report, which was to combat criticism that a state directive approved by Cuomo requiring nursing homes to accept COVID patients contributed to a higher death toll.
The state’s response to COVID-19 in nursing homes, including liability limitations okayed by the Cuomo administration, has been under investigation by the FBI.
The Assembly report also found state officials were aware of defects to bolts identified by a whistleblower within months of opening the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in late 2018. But the officials had been repeatedly assured by New York Thruway Authority leaders that there were no safety risks, the report found.
‘Truth Will Come Out’
Cuomo’s attorney, Rita Glavin, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the former governor, Rich Azzopardi, issued a lengthy rebuttal to the report, arguing that senior staffers volunteered their time toward the book and that no junior staffers assisted.
On the sexual harassment findings, he said any report based on the attorney general’s conclusions, which Cuomo has previously accused of being politically motivated, is “going to be equally flawed.”
Davis Polk independently interviewed both the trooper and Commisso, footnotes in the Assembly report show.
James is among the politicians running in next year’s election against current Gov. Kathy Hochul, who became the first woman to lead the state when Cuomo quit.
“The Assembly report is hypocritical, revisionist and damns themselves as the Assembly effectively forces employees to volunteer on their political partisan campaigns as standard practice and if they want to debate it we welcome it,” Azzopardi said.
His 480-word statement concludes: “The truth will come out.”
‘Worked Extensively on the Book’
Still, the report documents numerous instances in which Cuomo and Executive Chamber staffers dedicated their workday time to activities ranging from drafting edits to promoting “American Crisis.”
At least three days of manuscript editing were attended by senior members of Cuomo’s staff, including six employees who participated in a midday session on Friday, July 24, 2020, investigators found.
Cuomo also spent at least 24 hours recording the audio version of his book between Sept. 17 and Sept. 25, 2020, the report says.
Documents also reflect “numerous emails, phone calls and text messages from executive chamber employees about book sales,” investigators noted.
“Certain senior state officials worked extensively on the book, including attending meetings with agents and publishers, transcribing and drafting portions of the book, coordinating the production and promotion of the book, and participating in working sessions to review and finalize the book,” the report says. “This work was done as part of the regular course of work in the Executive Chamber, including during normal work hours.”
Investigators pointed to a text message from one senior state official to a colleague complaining that working on the book was “compromising the official’s ability to work on COVID-related matters.”
At one point, the probe reveals that the senior staffer who sent and received more than 1,000 emails regarding the book is the same high-level employee whom Cuomo identifies in the memoir as “the quarterback on my team.”
That characterization is of his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who served as his secretary to the governor.
DeRosa did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but her attorney defended the book work as demonstrably having occurred during her free time.
“Whenever Melissa was involved with the book, she took time off from work and her time records meticulously show as much,” said the attorney, Paul Shechtman.
A Celebrity Author
According to the report, the idea for Cuomo’s book materialized in the early days of the pandemic as he took to the airwaves daily to give televised updates about the crisis — earning him fans in New York and beyond, some of whom referred to themselves as “Cuomosexuals.”
As early as March 19, 2020, just days after New York City’s schools were shuttered because of the rapid spread of coronavirus, the then-governor’s literary agent was contacted by a Penguin Random House employee about penning a book.
A few months later, the agent revealed to the publishing house that Cuomo had already been writing a book about his experiences during the early months of the crisis.
The first official meeting about the book — which would later sell roughly 50,000 copies — occurred on July 6, 2020, according to the investigation.
Ten days later, the state’s ethics board, known as JCOPE, approved Cuomo’s work on the book — with a number of conditions.
Among the nine requirements: “No state property, personnel or other resources may be utilized for activities associated with the book.”
No Cuomo Cooperation
Roughly nine months later, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie charged the body’s Judiciary Committee with conducting an impeachment inquiry in the face of a number of accusations of sexual harassment against Cuomo.
The Assembly tapped the Davis Polk law firm to lead the probe in March 2021.
According to Monday’s findings, the firm reviewed about 600,000 pages of documents, photos, text messages, emails and other communications during the course of its investigation.
The firm also interviewed or received prior interview material for 212 people, the report and an accompanying press release say.
A question sent to the judiciary chair, Assemblymember Charles Lavine (D- L.I.), seeking information on how many people were interviewed by the firm, wasn’t answered.
Lavine said in a statement that Cuomo’s conduct demonstrates he’s not fit for office.
“I hope this report helps New Yorkers further understand the seriousness of the allegations that have been made and serves to guide us to a more ethical and responsible government,” said Lavine. “New Yorkers deserve no less.”
The report notes that after Cuomo’s resignation went into effect August 24, the scope of the investigation was limited because Assembly attorneys no longer deemed impeachment as a viable option.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s pledged cooperation never materialized.
“At no time has the former governor meaningfully complied with the committee’s requests or cooperated with its investigation,” the report says.
Azzopardi argued it was the committee that had withheld information from the governor’s team.
“To date we have not been allowed the opportunity to review evidence in the Assembly’s possession, despite requests to do so and due process was certainly not afforded here,” he said.
Cuomo Camp Casts Doubts
Among the new material identified by the Assembly report is corroborating evidence of Commisso’s timeline and other details regarding an incident in which she said Cuomo groped her at the executive mansion.
She had earlier expressed uncertainty about the date it happened.
But the Assembly report identifies it as Dec. 7, 2020, and found that records from that day confirm Commisso’s timeline about both her and the governor’s whereabouts.
“This same evidence corroborates Ms. Commisso’s recollection — details that she provided and about which she has remained consistent without the benefit of having access to the evidence…which would have allowed her to reconstruct a timeline of the day,” the report concluded.
Additionally, footage from a news conference that day aligned with Commisso’s description of what Cuomo had been wearing, the report found.
A message left for Commisso’s attorney, Brian Premo, wasn’t returned.
Azzopardi dismissed the significance of the corroboration, saying in his statement that “the fact that an employee entered and exited the Executive Mansion as part of her job was never in dispute — and once again this report offers no evidence to support any allegation.”
He also suggested that because the report focused on evidence related to allegations of sexual harassment from just two employees, it cast doubt on the validity of other complaints substantiated by James’ office.
The Assembly report says the firm, in consultation with the Judiciary Committee, deemed it sufficient to identify two examples without corroborating every single instance.
Lavine’s office didn’t respond to a question seeking further explanation.
“These two examples — standing alone — establish sufficient evidence of sexual harassment by the former governor, and, after consultation with the committee, we find that detailing the repeated sexual harassment against two women is sufficient for purposes of this report,” the investigation reads.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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