- Steve Bittenbender | The Center Square contributor/December 14th, 2021
(The Center Square) – A New York State public ethics agency ordered former Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday to pay back more than $5 million he received to write a book about managing the COVID-19 crisis.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) voted 12-1 during its Tuesday meeting. The embattled former governor has 30 days to give the money to State Attorney General Letitia James, but a Cuomo lawyer said the matter will likely wind up in court.
“JCOPE’s actions today are unconstitutional, exceed its own authority and appear to be driven by political interests rather than the facts and the law,” Jim McGuire said in a statement to reporters after the vote.
In July 2020, a staffer with the commission gave Cuomo permission to write a book on his handling of the pandemic. Penguin Random House won rights to the book through a bidding process and promised Cuomo more than $5 million.
JCOPE’s permission, though, included several caveats, including that Cuomo would write the book on his own time and that no state resources be used for it.
However, the State Assembly Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation into the former governor determined that several low-ranking staffers were required to work on the book and several senior officials had as well. The committee’s report was released last month.
At Nov. 17 JCOPE meeting, which took place before the impeachment report became public, the commissioners voted to formally rescind the agency’s approval of the book deal.
Cuomo resigned in August after a damning sexual harassment investigation substantiated claims made by 11 women, including women who worked for him in the governor’s office and served on his security detail. However, the harassment claims were just one of several matters being looked at by lawmakers, James and federal officials during his final months in office.
The book deal was among those issues under investigation. Cuomo faces criminal charges on one harassment claim, and investigations into his handling of nursing home policies remain under review as well.
While Cuomo intends to fight to keep the money he received, others lauded JCOPE – an agency that has been under intense scrutiny as well – for Tuesday’s vote.
“This is a step towards actual accountability. Cuomo will be forced to return the money he made off of lies back to New York State,” tweeted state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, and chair of the Senate’s Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. “This book deal shouldn’t have been approved in the first place, and I plan to ensure that it can’t happen again.
Even with JCOPE’s action Tuesday, Biaggi added she plans to push forward with reforms that include passing a constitutional amendment that would establish an independent ethics agency.
Currently, JCOPE consists of members appointed by legislative leaders and the governor’s office. Established a decade ago, critics have claimed the agency has been a paper tiger toward those in power.
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