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New York State AG issues subpoenas in criminal ethics probe over Andrew Cuomo’s $5.1m book deal

New York State Attorney General Letitia James has issued a subpoena to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics in its investigation into disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s $5.1million book deal. 

The probe centers on whether Cuomo improperly used state resources when he recruited his staff to work on the book, and whether he misled the JCOPE – the state’s ethics watchdog – when he explicitly promised the commission he would not do so. 

The issuance of the subpoena does not necessarily mean a grand jury has been looking over evidence in the probe, but may indicate that it has moved beyond interviews and into the gathering of public records, according to the Albany Times-Union, which first reported on the subpoena.

What records were being sought from the commission was also not clear as of Wednesday, the outlet reported.  

A spokesperson for James’ office declined to comment on the subpoena.  

The office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James (picture) has issued a subpoena to the state’s ethic’s watchdog over whether disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo violated state law when he recruited staff to work on this book 

The investigation follows a referral in April by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who asked James to investigate the ‘alleged commission of any indictable offense or offenses in violation of’ laws barring public officials from using state resources for private purposes.

DiNapoli authorized the attorney general to convene a grand jury, if she chose to do so, and prosecute anyone believed to have violated those laws. 

Cuomo received permission from state ethics commissioners last year to write his book — with conditions.

He had to write the book on ‘his own time and not on state time,’ according to state ethics rules. And, ‘no state property, personnel or other resources’ could be used.

Yet, several people who work for the state did work on the book, including Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa and the Director of Governor’s Offices Stephanie Benton, according to reports in The New York Times, The Times-Union, of Albany, and the USA TODAY State News Network. 

Cuomo claims his aides offered their time voluntarily and denies the allegations.

Cuomo, who stepped down on August 24 amid sexual harassment allegations, could potentially lose the royalties from his $5.1million book deal after it was revealed that several of his staffers worked on it

Cuomo, who stepped down on August 24 amid sexual harassment allegations, could potentially lose the royalties from his $5.1million book deal after it was revealed that several of his staffers worked on it

The book, released in October, 2020, centered on Cuomo's early handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the state

The book, released in October, 2020, centered on Cuomo’s early handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the state

If it is found he violated state law, Cuomo could be forced to return royalties he earned from the deal. 

New York’s public officer’s law requires vetting and approval from the ethics agency on matters relating to outside income and prohibits elected officials from engaging in situations benefiting themselves. 

In JCOPE’s hearing on August 26, it was revealed that commission staffers silently approved Cuomo’s request to write the book without a full panel vote, resulting in tension among JCOPE commissioners. 

‘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 Commissioner Gary Lavine.   

James' investigation into potential ethics violations came after a request by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (pictured) in April. He is pictured on August 2 at a kick-off event for New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams

James’ investigation into potential ethics violations came after a request by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (pictured) in April. He is pictured on August 2 at a kick-off event for New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams 

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for September 14, when the commission could rescind its staff approval for the book deal, and potentially open an avenue for the state to attempt to claw back proceeds Cuomo earned from it.     

At a Senate Ethics Committee meeting on August 25, State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) questioned JCOPE’s executive director Judge Sanford Berland on whether the panel was confident in retrieving profits gained from Cuomo’s 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,’ Stec said.

Pictured in this photo is Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) executive director Judge Sanford Berland

Pictured in this photo is Senate Ethics Committee, State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queesbury)

At the August 25 state Senate Ethics Committee, State Sen. Dan Stec (right) asked Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) executive director Judge Sanford Berland (left) on whether the panel could retrieve profits gained from Cuomo’s memoir, ‘American Crisis: Leadership Lessons and the COVID-19 Pandemic’

‘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?’      

Berland responded that the statute provides ‘for a penalty that includes recoupment of the compensation or benefits received by the individual.’ 

But he argued the move to take back the royalties as a penalty would need to be voted on by a full panel of JCOPE commissioners, and could face legal challenges.      

Following its October 2020 release, the book immediately became a New York Times bestseller, during a time when Cuomo was still favorable among his constituents for guiding New York through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The book was tied to the governor’s daily COVID-19 briefings in 2020 during the height of the pandemic in New York.

Cuomo is also under investigation by law enforcement officials in Albany looking into a criminal complaint filed by former aide Brittany Commisso, (pictured) who alleges he groped her in the governor's mansion in November

Cuomo is also under investigation by law enforcement officials in Albany looking into a criminal complaint filed by former aide Brittany Commisso, (pictured) who alleges he groped her in the governor’s mansion in November

Crown Publishing offered the former governor more than $5 million for the manuscript – a risk considering Cuomo’s previous memoir sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

Tax records show Cuomo received the bulk of his advance, $3.12 million in 2020 and is expected to receive an additional $2 million in installments over the next two years. 

After sexual assault allegations against Cuomo surfaced in late February, Crown tried to distance itself from Cuomo, canceling plans for a paperback version in addition to halting promotion.

Cuomo is also under criminal investigation related to an allegation that he groped a former staffer at the governor’s mansion in November. 

It was the most serious among the sexual harassment claims made by 11 women  outlined in a report released by James’ earlier last month.

On August 31 is was revealed that the Albany County Sheriff’s office had issued subpoenas in the investigation into a criminal complaint filed by the alleged victim, Brittany Commisso, the Times Union reported.

Additionally Cuomo faces criminal probes by the FBI and the Brooklyn US Attorney’s office over Covid-19 nursing homes deaths. 


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