Be careful what you wish for, Andrew Cuomo.
The ex-governor is threatening to sue the Joint Commission on Public Ethics for ordering him to turn over the proceeds of his $5.1 million coronavirus book deal to state Attorney General Letitia James within 30 days.
JCOPE’s order on Tuesday came a month after it revoked its approval last year allowing Cuomo to write the book — after concluding he violated a pledge not to use staffers and other government resources to prepare it.
One commissioner on the ethics board said of the expected litigation: Bring it on!
JCOPE commissioner Gary Lavine said discovery material produced in any such court case could lead to more damning details about how the book deal came about, including what he suspected was potential collusion between the then-governor and pro-Cuomo JCOPE staffers.
The Cuomo book deal was originally given the OK by a JCOPE staffer, not by its appointed commissioners, and critics claimed the fix was in.
“I do not believe we have all the details on the book deal,” Lavine said. “Every time the book deal is subject to legal action, it’s subject to scrutiny.”
Lavine said the “Cuomo cohort” at JCOPE and the senior staff in the governor’s office wanted “to operate in secret and kill investigations and not be held accountable.”
Ethics lawyer David Grandeau said Cuomo’s lawyers could demand discovery to prove that the JCOPE staffer, Martin Lavine, “rubber stamped” the book deal.
“Who gave him direction, why didn’t he ask these questions a year and a half ago?” Grandeau said.
But such discovery is a double-edged sword. It could show that Cuomo had undue influence over the ethics watchdog agency, sources said, something that has long been rumored.
What happens next remains to be seen.
The JCOPE order says Cuomo must return the book profits within 30 days to AG James’ office. The attorney general is tasked with determining how the book profits will be disbursed. James said she is reviewing JCOPE’s order.
There are several ongoing Cuomo book investigations.
James has an ongoing criminal probe of whether Cuomo illegally used government resources to prepare and complete the book. The Brooklyn US attorney also has asked about the book deal as part of its probe into Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
JCOPE is planning to hire an outside counsel to investigate the circumstances surrounding its initial approval of the Cuomo book.
The watchdog agency also is probing whether Cuomo violated the Public Officers law by using government resources.
Government watchdogs said the Cuomo book case is unprecedented.
“JCOPE has never tried to compel a governor or statewide elected official to disgorge or hand back income from an outside deal,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.
“Either way Cuomo is in legal trouble. Either Cuomo himself or Cuomo’s lawyer lied to JCOPE when he got their permission to do the book. He misrepresented the status of the project at the time, when it was underway and they said it wasn’t.”
“The question is: do Tish James and the feds have the appetite to pursue this in court?” added Kaehny.
Cuomo and his lawyers insist they abided by the JCOPE’s agreement and the law because staffers who worked on the book did so voluntarily on their own time.
“If Speaker Heastie, Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Hochul’s JCOPE appointees have created a new standard whereby government staffers cannot volunteer their own time for non-governmental purposes, they should all be equally prosecuted under the same standard and be forced to repay the state for volunteer work on their re-election campaigns,” sniped Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi.
A source close to Cuomo said Wednesday that JCOPE officials “shot themselves in the foot” because they have not completed an investigation or substantiated that the ex-governor violated any law.
“They haven’t provided due process,” the insider said.