Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Credit: Bloomberg/Jeenah Moon

"American Crisis," the book Andrew M. Cuomo wrote last year, ended up doing far more to worsen his personal crises in the ever-murky realm of Albany ethics than to enlighten the public on COVID-19. Cuomo snared a $5.1 million advance, undoubtedly the result of public acclaim from his TV presence responding to the deadly virus in New York. Nobody guessed then that his star would fall so quickly.

It's not that elected officials cannot or should not write books while they are in office. Cuomo's late father Mario — during what proved to be his last year as governor — published "The New York Idea: An Experiment in Democracy." That was more of a philosophical tract, creating no headlines or fat payoffs — and no ethical land mines.

But the younger Cuomo clearly used state staff for his publication, evidently after promising personnel at the Joint Commission on Public Ethics otherwise. A State Assembly probe concluded that "senior officials, and the former Governor, worked on the book during the course of normal work routines." That raises the key ethical question: Why did Cuomo rush to complete this book while the pandemic was still raging, taking up valuable time of those in the administration who were also working all kinds of hours on their crisis-time public jobs?

The cover of the book "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From...

The cover of the book "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic" by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.  Credit: AP

This case cries out for new clarity about what will be deemed acceptable in the future.

JCOPE, created to enforce rules on conduct by public officials in their interaction with private entities, is expected to be replaced next year by another entity after years of dubious performance. On Tuesday the panel, now including members appointed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, issued an "order" that Cuomo hand the book profits over to the state attorney general within 30 days.

Don't bet on that happening. It's just more Albany theater.

Former lobbying regulator David Grandeau, an attorney, is among the experts who say this order can't be enforced. The panel, he says, could have acted under state provisions against the misuse of state resources, perhaps imposing fines of up to $10,000 and recovering the value of those resources. But that would have meant a thorough investigation — and due process for the ex-governor. The current JCOPE, acting belatedly, doesn't seem up to it.

The State Legislature, and whatever new entity it creates, should set specific restrictions on use of state employees for the boss' book projects. For public officials, side gigs are always bad optics, but the problem is compounded when their government staff is deployed to enable the payday.

Let's explore and draw the right lines once and for all, even if just in this one area, to prevent future abuses. Who knows — doing that well might inspire a push to clean up the rest of Albany, too.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.