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Commentary & Opinion

Cuomo's ethics problems are getting worse

Three months ago, former Governor Cuomo resigned from office after a devastating report issued by the Attorney General. The Attorney General had been asked by the governor to investigate allegations that he, the governor, had harassed women in government.

The report that was issued by the AG found that the allegations against the governor were in fact true. Moreover, the AG’s report described a toxic political culture within the Cuomo Administration that created a climate of fear and hostility among those working for the governor and his top aides.

The former governor’s troubles did not end there. Local law enforcement officials are investigating whether some of those harassment claims constitute criminal behavior. The Attorney General is also continuing her investigation by examining other topics, including whether the former governor misused public resources in the writing of his book, titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic.” The U.S. Attorney and the Manhattan District Attorney are reportedly looking into the ex-governor’s handling of the pandemic.

The former governor received $5.1 million for the lessons-from-the-pandemic book. The book was the governor’s opportunity to “cash in” on his celebrity as a fact-based-counterpoint to the incompetence by the then-Trump Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York State’s governor is the highest paid in the nation and is considered a full-time employee. He had to receive approval from the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, in order to receive outside income.

In this case, the outside income was staggering – millions of dollars for a book that was based on then-Governor Cuomo’s actions as a public employee, written during the pandemic while he was still a public employee. The former governor was asking for approval of a massively lucrative book deal that was based on his work as governor.

That alone should have given JCOPE pause.

Moreover, the former governor used public resources to do the legal work to request the approval. His full-time public employee subordinates researched and wrote up the legal request for the book approval. JCOPE should have stopped the request right then and there.

But instead, the JCOPE staff decided not to alert the agency’s Commissioners and to green light the governor’s book deal, but with one caveat: He could not use public resources in the writing of the book.

However, it has now become clear that the former governor did just that.

Last week, the JCOPE Commissioners took the extraordinary action to rescind the agency’s approval of the book deal. That action puts in jeopardy the former governor’s multi-million-dollar payday.

And then today the Assembly released its long-anticipated report on the former governor’s actions that confirmed the findings in the AG’s report and provided more detail that the JCOPE decision to rescind its approval of the book deal was warranted. The Assembly Committee’s investigation found that Governor Cuomo "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."

In comments to the Times, Assemblymember Phil Steck, an attorney who represents Colonie, N.Y. and a member of the Assembly Committee, said that “it would be a very reasonable inference” that there was some correlation between former Governor Cuomo’s $5.1 million book deal and his Administration’s manipulation of nursing home death data.

That damning report, if true, that turns up the heat in the already hot water that the former governor currently finds himself in. It is bad enough for the former governor to use public resources to enrich himself personally, but it is another altogether to manipulate nursing home COVID deaths in order to land or protect the lucrative book deal.

Of course, the former governor is presumed to be innocent as he claims to be.

Yet, the allegations of harassment, unprofessionalism, unethical actions, and personal enrichment continue to pile up, putting the former governor in deeper legal troubles.

In addition to the former governor’s legal woes, there is the question of whether an aggressive ethics watchdog would have prevented such behaviors. The former governor was the driving force in the creation of JCOPE early in his governorship and it was widely viewed as controlled by his Administration.

In a previous book deal, JCOPE had allowed the former governor to use his government staff attorney to request approval for that book. The agency more or less rolled over back then and had done little to check the actions of the former governor and his staff. Those failures may have emboldened Governor Cuomo to believe he could do what he wanted.

We will see how these overlapping proceedings play out for the former governor. But what is clear is that New York’s ethics laws have failed and that comprehensive reforms are needed. Governor Hochul will have to figure out how to address that in the coming weeks.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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