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NY ethics commission votes to claw back Cuomo's $5M book payment

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

The New York state ethics commission voted Tuesday to claw back the $5 million that former Governor Andrew Cuomo received for a memoir he wrote about his management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commission voted 12 to 1 that Cuomo has to repay within 30 days the $5 million he was paid by the publisher. A month ago, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, rescinded permission it gave in the summer of 2020 for Cuomo to write the book and profit from it. The panel says the governor misrepresented the project, and had agreed to work on it during his own time and not use any state resources.

Reports by state Attorney General Tish James and the state Assembly’s impeachment inquiry committee found that Cuomo had begun working on the book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” before he received the OK from JCOPE, and that he did in fact use top staff and lower level assistants to help him write edit and submit drafts to publisher, something Cuomo denies.

John Kaehny, with the government reform group Reinvent Albany, says JCOPE did the right thing.

“Cuomo lied to the ethics commission in a couple ways when he got his special permission to accept this $5 million for a book,” said Kaehny. “He in fact had started working on the book before even seeking the ethics commission’s permission and he had state employees work on the book, which he pledged not to do.”

Under the order, it will be up to the Attorney General to collect the money and decide whether it show go back to the book’s publisher.

Cuomo attorney Jim McGuire says in a statement that JCOPE’s actions are “unconstitutional” and exceed the commission’s authority to act. McGuire says the vote appears to be “driven by political interests rather than the facts and the law” He promised a lengthy court battle if the commission, and the Attorney General try to enforce the ruling.

Crown Publishing halted new printings of the book after the Attorney General in early 2021 found the former governor undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%. There are allegations that Cuomo tried to suppress the true numbers to protect book sales, something the former governor also denies. A federal probe is ongoing. Cuomo resigned in August in a sexual harassment scandal.

Assemblyman Ron Kim lost two relatives who died of COVID in nursing homes at the height of the pandemic in 2020. He publicly feuded with the former governor over Cuomo’s handling of nursing home policy. Kim said, in a statement, that the decision is “s a small measure of justice for the families whose loved ones' memories were trampled on by the former governor.”

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.