The outgoing Joint Commission on Public Ethics acted as disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s patsies by approving his controversial $ 5 million pandemic book deal without even a basic review of its terms, a blistering investigative report released Thursday found.
Instead JCOPE officials allowed Cuomo and his team to dictate the terms of what information it would disclose and when about the book contract when it sought approval from the ethics agency.
“One of the clear takeaways from our analysis of JCOPE’s approval of the July 10th [2020 book] request is that the Executive Chamber overpowered JCOPE, and JCOPE failed to assert itself as a watchdog agency against the Governor, ”the findings of the law firm Hogan Lovells found.
“Rather than JCOPE telling the Executive Chamber what information it needed to provide in order to obtain approval, the Executive Chamber told JCOPE what information the Governor would provide, which was not much.”
The belated investigative report, ordered recently by JCOPE’s commissioners said, “The Executive Chamber also successfully coerced JCOPE into expediting the approval and rushing through the process with very minimal due diligence.”
The report recommended the new Commission on Ethics in Lobbying and Government handle things differently and put in place a more rigorous review process to make it “more difficult for statewide elected officials to quickly push ethically questionable or problematic requests through the approval process.”
For example, the commissioners should be required to approve any outside activity such as a profit-making book of a statewide office holder. JCOPE commissioners delegated the authority to its top staff.
The new ethics agency should also create a list of information and documents that must be provided in connection with all outside activity requests, including an “outside activity form” that would provide the hours spent on preparing the book.
JCOPE never collected such information from Cuomo.
The 36-page report provides a brutal tick-tock of the July 10-17 period in 2020 when Cuomo sought and obtained approval of the book deal from JCOPE, which would be entitled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. ”
Much of it centers on emails involving Cuomo’s attorney, Judith Mogul and Martin Levine, JCOPE’s co-executive director as well as then-chairman Michael Rozan.
“Governor Cuomo treated the JCOPE approval process as an afterthought, and that he or his staff communicated to his literary agent that the JCOPE approval process was essentially a formality that would be completed quickly so as not to impact the publisher,” the report said.
The initial request to JCOPE from Cuomo’s lawyer for approval “mischaracterized” the subject matter of the book by “failing to disclose that it would focus on Governor Cuomo’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic” and claiming it would merely be a continuation of the prior book he wrote.
But by the time Cuomo requested JCOPE’s approval, a majority of the book had already been drafted and it mostly focused on his official duties and New York’s response to the pandemic, the report said.
At one point, Linda Lacewell, then the superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services – a longtime Cuomo aide known as his enforcer – was patched into a call with Levine to try to convince him to “back down from his request for the publishing contract . ”
JCOPE never received the contract before giving sign off, though some commissioners, particularly George Weissman requested it.
In an email exchange, Commissioner James Yates asked why approval of the book deal has to be done on a “rush basis.”
In a deal with Cuomo, JCOPE Chairman Rozen and Levine received additional information about the book contract – including the sizable compensation – so long as they kept it a secret from the rest of the commissioners.
The report concluded JCOPE “disregarded potential ethical Issues arising from Governor Cuomo contemporaneously writing and commercializing a book about his handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic .. the book ultimately was a day-by-day account of the governor’s handling of the pandemic response. ”
Writing the book posed a potential conflict of interest because Cuomo was still leading the state’s response to pandemic and making policies in real time that could be used to generate content for the book.
“There was a substantial possibility that he would use state resources in order to complete the Book so that it could be published in the fall,” the report said.
The use of state resources – which is supposed to be prohibited – was one of nine factors under state law that JCOPE was supposed to look at to determine whether to approve the book deal.
But JCOPE staffers acted as Cuomo’s gullible chumps instead of watchdogs, accepting the governor’s claim in all instances “without any further inquiry,” the report said.
The report said “it strains credulity” that Cuomo could write a book about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and publish it just a few months later in the fall – “without receiving substantial assistance from others in that effort.”
“If JCOPE obtained the contract before approving the Book, JCOPE would have learned that: Governor Cuomo was required to deliver an approximately 80,000 word manuscript just seven days after the July 10 Request, which means that the Governor must have made substantial progress on the Book before even requesting prior approval from JCOPE, ”the probe concluded.
The book focused on the State’s response to COVID-19, making it much more likely that Cuomo’s staffers and state personnel were used to help prepare it given the “imminent deadline” with the publisher.
The $ 5 million compensation for the book created a “significant financial incentive” for Cuomo that “might not be aligned with his official responsibilities,” the probers said.
Cuomo was accused of stonewalling and low-balling COVID-19 related nursing home deaths because it didn’t jibe with the book narrative of his strong response to the pandemic, which triggered federal and state investigations.
“It is quite plausible that JCOPE staff would not have approved the July 10 Request if they had all of this information,” the report said.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi dismissed the report from JCOPE’s “dinosaur” hired guns.
“As we said all along, on the advice of counsel all staff who volunteered on the book worked on their own time – and as finally acknowledged today, we provided any and all information that JCOPE required for approval,” Azzopardi said.
“There is some poetry to the fact that this feeble stunt – authored by the very law firm that is representing JJOKE in our lawsuit – is the last act from this incompetent biased, score settling dinosaur of a bureaucracy.”
Last November, JCOPE revoked its approval of the Cuomo book deal and demanded that the ex-governor cough up the proceeds after concluding he violated ethics rules. Cuomo sued JCOPE, claiming its reversal and subsequent action to punish him was unconstitutional and Hogan Lovells, the firm that did the investigation of the book deal, is representing the ethics agency in the case.