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New York Gov. Hochul announces "parameters of conceptual" budget deal, two weeks after deadline

NYS Ethics Commission With Powers To Investigate Cuomo Has A Troubled History

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking in Albany Dec. 2, 2020.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could have violated state ethics laws, according to allegations in newspaper accounts that he used his staff to help him write a book on how he managed the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave his family and politically connected associates priority access to coronavirus tests. But, the state’s ethics commission, which has the power to investigate the allegations, has a poor track record investigating claims of corruption.Reports in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Albany Times Union say Cuomo used state police and a top health department epidemiologist to provide COVID tests last spring to his family, including his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, who became ill with the virus, his mother Matilda Cuomo, and one of his sisters. At the time, COVID testing resources were extremely limited, and thousands of New Yorkers ill or dying from the virus had no access to testing.

A spokesman for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, denies that anyone was given special preference.

Also, allegations in the New York Times say Cuomo used his staff to help him write a book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, on his successes managing the pandemic, even though an attorney at the state ethics panel had told him he could not use state property, resources, or personnel to help him produce or promote the book.   

The governor’s spokesman says the staff was volunteering their time.

John Kaehny, with the reform group Reinvent Albany, says the governor’s actions would be in conflict with existing state ethics rules.

“If what the governor is alleged to have done is true, it’s a clear violation of the public officer’s law,” Kaehny said.

The law says state officials can’t use their official position to “secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions” for themselves or others including the misappropriation of property, services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated non-governmental purposes.

“That means that you can’t use state resources to benefit your family or friends or anyone, because that’s not fair and it’s wrong and it’s banned,” Kaehny said. 

And he says Cuomo, a veteran of state government, would know about the law.

Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt and Democratic state Attorney General Tish James who is investigating the governor on sexual harassment allegations, are among those who say the state’s Joint Commission Public Ethics, should also look into the matter.

But the Joint Ethics Commission, known as JCOPE, has a flawed track record when it comes to investigating the state’s elected officials. The results of probes of the governor’s former top aide, Joe Percoco, who is now in prison on a federal corruption conviction, and a former Senate co-leader, Jeff Klein, over sexual harassment charges, have never been announced. JCOPE has also never sanctioned two former legislative leaders, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, who are both also in prison on federal charges.

The commission is designed to make it difficult to launch investigations. Eight of the 14 commissioners must vote yes to begin a probe. The governor appoints 6 of the commissioners, and legislative leaders of both political parties appoint the remaining 8.   

In the past, votes have often split along party lines, making it difficult to get 8 members to all agree.

But there are signs that when it comes to investigating Cuomo, that could be changing. In a March 23 meeting, 7 legislative appointees on the commission voted to subpoena Cuomo’s office to get more information about Larry Schwartz, a former aid now volunteering for the governor who was accused of potentially trading political support from county leaders for the embattled governor for access to COVID vaccines. The governor’s 6 commissioners all voted no. Since 8 votes were needed, the motion went nowhere. But earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins filled a vacancy on the commission, and the legislature will now have 8 commissioners.

JCOPE has called a special meeting for April 9, but has not named the reason for the meeting. A spokesman says an agenda will be posted in advance of the gathering. 

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says she does not have high hopes that the troubled ethics commission will authorize or conduct a thorough investigation.

“At this particular point JCOPE unfortunately, has no credibility,” Lerner said. “And is not capable of investigating anything that happens in the executive chamber or conduct by the governor.”

Lerner says the Attorney General’s public integrity bureau would conduct a more credible investigation.

Kaehny agrees that the ethics commission has been a “massive disappointment,” but he says it’s possible that the dynamics are changing.

“The public’s expectations are that JCOPE is a joke, it does nothing,” he said. “Maybe this new member appointed by (Senate Leader) Andrea Stewart-Cousins will change the voting so that they can issue subpoenas and investigate this and enforce the ethics law.

JCOPE is not the only investigative body that could be involved. The state Assembly began an impeachment inquiry over allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women against the governor, and to look at allegations the governor and his staff hid the actual number of nursing home residents who died of coronavirus. 

The impeachment inquiry will now also be looking at the alleged favoritism concerning the COVID tests and the allegations about the book deal.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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