ALBANY — Disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo could be forced to return the royalties gained from his $5.1 million book deal if it’s determined that he violated New York law, the top official sitting on the state’s ethics agency told lawmakers in Albany on Wednesday.
State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) grilled Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) executive director Judge Sanford Berland during a state Senate Ethics Committee hearing as to whether or not the panel was empowered to claw back profits gained from Cuomo’s pandemic-era memoir, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons and the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
“If the financial gain is significantly more than any fines or penalties [that] can be invoked, there’s an obvious encouragement for the behavior… if I get a $5,000 fine for a $5 million book deal — that’s not much of a deterrent. So I guess my question is, again, hypothetically, if financial gain is significant, is there a mechanism for JCOPE to claw back beyond just a standard fine or penalty, but the actual gain itself?” probed Stec.
Berland replied that the statute does provide “for a penalty that includes recoupment of the compensation or benefits received by the individual.”
However, the judge has previously argued the move could face legal hurdles if the action is voted on by JCOPE commissioners via a full panel vote.
Cuomo’s book deal is the subject of an ongoing probe by the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn into whether the disgraced governor misused state resources by employing government staffers to help write and produce the book during work hours.
Cuomo has denied the allegations, arguing the aides volunteered on the project.
The book landed on the New York Times best-seller list following its October publication, as Cuomo still basked in popularity tied to his daily COVID-19 briefings in 2020, at the height of the pandemic in New York.
But sales tanked in the new year and Crown Publishing Group paused promoting the tome — announcing the company would stop reprinting and reissuing copies — after sexual harassment allegations arose in late February against the then-governor.
Tension also arose among JCOPE commissioners earlier this year after it was revealed that JCOPE staffers quietly approved Cuomo’s request to write the book without a full panel vote.
New York’s public officer’s law bars elected officials from engaging in activity to enrich themselves, requiring a vetting and approval from the ethics agency on matters concerning outside income.
Commissioner Gary Lavine, a Republican appointee, told The Post he plans on making a motion to revoke approval for Cuomo’s book deal during the public session of JCOPE’s upcoming meeting Thursday morning — which would force the ex-gov to reapply for permission.
“We promulgated a rule having to do with applications for outside activity — meaning outside income. The rule requires a vote of the commission. But there was no vote on the book deal, in fact it was never presented to us. The staff took the position that no vote of the commission was necessary. I will move tomorrow to rescind the informal opinion,” said Lavine.
“The grounds for rescission on the approval is the material misrepresentation that there would be no state resources used to write the book and effective its publication.”
If the measure is voted on and approved, Cuomo would have 10 business days to reapply for approval.
The panel would then review the application and take a vote to either deny or greenlight the request at a future meeting.
Lavine also said he will raise a resolution asking JCOPE to make a criminal referral to the attorney general, asking her to investigate alleged misconduct involving a 2019 leak that occurred during a private session.
The leak — reportedly concerning whether or not the panel voted to investigate ex-Cuomo aide joe Percoco — was also referred to the state Assembly Judiciary Committee to include in its impeachment probe.
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