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State ethics board fails to rescind approval that allowed Cuomo to write his memoir

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a news

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a news conference in July. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

ALBANY — Members of the state ethics board on Tuesday narrowly failed in their effort to revoke the 2020 approval that allowed former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to write his pandemic memoir.

Several ethics board commissioners argued the approval should have been revoked because the approval was based on "misrepresentation" made by Cuomo and his attorney that state workers wouldn't be used in producing the once-bestselling memoir.

An investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James this year found some of Cuomo’s top aides edited the manuscript in a possible violation of state law.

Cuomo responded that his aides worked on their own time, not state-paid time.

James provided the report to the state Assembly Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the book deal.

Although the board voted 7-6 to revoke the staff approval, eight votes are required under New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics' rules to pass a resolution. If passed, the vote could have resulted in Cuomo having to turn over his $5.1 million payment in addition to civil penalties.

The meeting Tuesday also was unusually contentious and most of it was held in public session.

JCOPE’s general counsel, Monica Stamm, warned that the board shouldn’t discuss Cuomo’s book deal in public session. She also argued that in 2020, Cuomo was granted approval to write the book by a staff member, which was the common practice then.

"You couldn’t be more wrong, Monica," said Commissioner James Yates, a retired state Supreme Court judge. "I kept saying, ‘You are breaking the law’ … when a staff approves a statewide official’s outside activity request you are breaking the law."

Months later, the controversy prompted JCOPE to require the entire board to rule on requests regarding outside activity and income for state officials.

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, JCOPE also rejected a motion by Commissioner Gary Lavine to ask the attorney general to mount a criminal investigation into a leak of a confidential vote.

The leak arose from a closed-door session in January 2019. In that meeting, JCOPE declined to investigate Joseph Percoco, Cuomo’s longtime friend and top aide.

Percoco was convicted of corruption in a bid-rigging case brought by federal prosecutors involving one of Cuomo’s biggest economic development projects known as the Buffalo Billion.

That 2019 vote by JCOPE was supposed to be confidential under law.

But then-Commissioner Julie Garcia said she was contacted shortly after the 2019 vote and was told Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie weren’t pleased with her vote, according to her testimony in a Senate hearing on JCOPE in August.

The vote to move to seek a criminal investigation also failed on a 7-6 vote, falling short of the eight votes needed to make the referral to the attorney general.

Cuomo’s spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, had no comment on either issue.

During the meeting, several commissioners insisted that the discussions about the book deal and leak be held in public session.

The board has long been criticized for doing most of its work behind closed doors under a law Cuomo wrote in 2011 and which was passed by the State Legislature.

The two agenda items struck squarely at Cuomo.

JCOPE had been criticized by good-government groups and some commissioners as being too close to Cuomo.

Cuomo, a Democrat, resigned from office last month after a report by James accused him of sexual harassment.

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