Cuomo’s $5 Million Book Deal Is Subject of a New Ethics Inquiry
Last July, as New York began to slowly emerge from the brutal first wave of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked the state ethics panel for …
Last July, as New York began to slowly emerge from the brutal first wave of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked the state ethics panel for permission to write a book about his leadership during the crisis.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics was not supposed to meet again until August, but that posed no issue: a staff member at the commission reviewed the request and issued an authorization. No vote was taken.
The commission’s go-ahead was emblematic of the culture in Albany under the Cuomo administration, with even those parts of state government that were ostensibly independent bending to his influence.
The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic” — which earned Mr. Cuomo $5.1 million — and the commission’s approval are now at the center of a fresh controversy surrounding the ex-governor.
Mr. Cuomo’s resignation in August has changed the political environment — including on the ethics commission, which had just last month voted not to look back into the book deal and its approval.
Since then, the commission’s chair has stepped aside, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has appointed two new members. On Tuesday, both joined a majority in voting to open an investigation into Mr. Cuomo and the approval of his book deal.
The vote marks the second time in a month that the board has voted to investigate itself; the first came when it asked the state attorney general’s office to look into the circumstances surrounding the leak of confidential deliberations to Mr. Cuomo in 2019.
One likely aspect of the inquiry will be Mr. Cuomo’s promise not to use state resources, including personnel, in executing the book project. The New York Times has reported that aides were involved in many aspects of the book’s compilation: Melissa DeRosa, Mr. Cuomo’s top aide, edited drafts and sat in on meetings with his publisher, while lower-level staffers helped out with fact-checking and assisted with administrative tasks like dictation and copies. Mr. Cuomo has said that any help that was given was done so outside of working hours, on a volunteer basis.
The commission agreed on Tuesday to hire outside counsel to run the inquiry.
The circumstances surrounding the approval given to Mr. Cuomo arose from a longstanding practice of allowing certain requests to be unilaterally approved by commission staffers, without the commissioners’ involvement. Mr. Cuomo’s book was one of these instances — approved by the board’s deputy general counsel, in between June and August meetings last year.
“It’s disgraceful,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a good-government advocacy group, said on Tuesday, equating the approvals to “Get Out of Jail Free cards that make it near impossible to prosecute government officials for abusing the power of their offices.”
Ms. Hochul has said that she is considering reconfiguring the panel, which has also been scrutinized for its lack of transparency and structural makeup. The new governor has made the promise of change the center of her administration.
“I want people to believe in their government again,” she said on her first day in office.
Since then she has accepted the resignations of numerous officials who served her predecessor, including Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, and Letizia Tagliafierro, the inspector general. Ms. Hochul has said that she will take her first 45 days to review those currently serving and to “build her government team.” That period ends this week.
The ethics commission’s decision would seem to signal the beginnings of that change. When the panel voted against opening an inquiry in September, it was led by James Dering, a Cuomo holdover. Since then, he’s become the fourth of Mr. Cuomo’s six appointees to take their leave.
Two of Ms. Hochul’s newest appointees, Sharon Stern Gerstman, a Republican, and Jose Nieves, the Democratic chairman, participated in their first meeting on Tuesday.
Mr. Nieves is a combat veteran, having served in Afghanistan before working for the state attorney general’s office and the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2019, he launched an unsuccessful bid to become Queens district attorney. Ms. Gerstman, a lawyer based in Buffalo, specializes in mediation and appellate work and has served as president of the New York State Bar Association. In 2016, she appeared on an episode of the television show “Jeopardy!”