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New York ethics panel votes to investigate itself over Cuomo book deal approval

Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) Chairman Jose Nieves
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) Chairman Jose Nieves

The state ethics panel voted Tuesday to open an independent investigation of how the panel approved a $5 million dollar book deal for former Governor Andrew Cuomo. The deal has been the subject of a probe by the state’s attorney general as well as federal investigators.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, called a special meeting to reexamine the panel’s own decision, made in the summer of 2020, to allow Cuomo to write a memoir about his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The former governor was paid $5 million dollars for the book, titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” after the commission’s top staff approved Cuomo’s request to receive the outside income.

Cuomo never submitted the book contract to the panel, and the full commission never voted to approve the arrangement. Several commissioners complained at the time that they were shut out of the decisions.

The commission’s staff said the former governor could not rely on state employees or other state resources to produce the memoir, but Cuomo is alleged to have used staff to help him write and edit the book, something he denies.

After a nearly two hour closed door meeting, the commission’s chair, Jose Nieves, announced that the commission will ask an independent law firm to look into the matter.

“The commission has voted to approve the retention of independent counsel to conduct an inquiry into the legal and procedural operations of the commission,” Nieves said.

Before the executive session was called, Commissioner David McNamara, who was appointed by the Senate Republicans, asked that matter be discussed in open session.

“We have one item of business on today’s agenda, and I think the public deserves a brief statement on what that item of business is,” McNamara said.

Nieves interrupted McNamara before he could finish, and instead called for a vote to begin the executive session.

It was Nieves’ first time chairing a meeting. Governor Kathy Hochul appointed him, along with another new commissioner, on Monday. Hochul has been systematically replacing Cuomo appointees throughout state government, including those named to JCOPE.

State Attorney General Letitia James and federal prosecutors are conducting separate probes into the book deal and whether Cuomo and his aides misused state funds.

The move to probe the commission’s own actions in the book deal is the second time in recent weeks that JCOPE has asked for an investigation of its decisions. In mid-September, in an 11-to-1 vote, the commission approved a request to James to look into an alleged leak of a 2019 vote taken during an executive session.

In that instance, the commission was holding a private vote on whether to investigate Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco for ethical violations. Percoco is now in federal prison after being convicted of running bribery and kickback schemes.

The former governor allegedly became aware of how an appointee of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie had voted, and expressed his displeasure to the speaker. A probe by Cuomo’s own inspector general found no wrongdoing, but investigators did not interview the then-governor, the speaker or other key witnesses, including another Heastie appointee, Jim Yates. Yates told the other commissioners during a JCOPE meeting earlier this year that he reported the alleged leak to the inspector general, but was never contacted as part of the probe.

The inspector general, Letizia Tagliafierro, has since resigned, in what Hochul’s office said was a mutual agreement.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.