Cuomo’s COVID book effort may have flouted NY ethics rules, state law. Here’s how.
ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s use of state staff and resources last year as he crafted and promoted his best-selling book on the COVID-19 pandemic may put him in violation of state ethics rules, leaving him vulnerable to a potential fine.
In July, Cuomo’s office sought and received approval from Martin Levine, an attorney for the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, before the governor entered into a lucrative, seven-figure contract with a Penguin Random House subsidiary to write “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
But the approval laid out nine specific conditions Cuomo had to follow, making clear he could not use any state property, resources or personnel to craft or tout the book, nor could he advertise it at any official state events or write it for an organization or audience that competes for state contracts.
A USA TODAY Network New York review of Cuomo’s actions leading up to and directly following the book’s October release suggest he may have violated some of those conditions and toed the line of others, which could put him at odds with state Public Officers Law.
Public Officers Law violations can be punished by a fine of up to $10,000 and the value of any “compensation or benefit received as a result of such violation.” Cuomo fetched offers of more than $4 million for his book deal, according to The New York Times.
Among the conduct in question:
- Cuomo repeatedly conducted television interviews, Q&As and other virtual events promoting the book from the Executive Mansion, the state-owned property provided to the governor for use as his residence.
- At least three senior staff members — Melissa DeRosa, Stephanie Benton and Rich Azzopardi — were involved in the crafting or promotion of the book, though Cuomo’s office says all volunteered their time.
- Cuomo mentioned his book during several official COVID-19 briefings and news conferences, including those on Aug. 19, Nov. 15, Nov. 23 and Dec. 23.
- Executive assistants were told to type or transfer notes for the book, and at least twice were directed to print drafts and deliver them to the Executive Mansion, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser and spokesman, said Cuomo and his staff members made efforts to comply with state rules.
“As is permissible and consistent with ethical requirements, people who volunteered on this project did so on their own time,” Azzopardi said in a statement. “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”
Government-reform advocates see it differently.
John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that pushes for government transparency, said Cuomo’s actions in regards to the book were “extremely unethical.”
“The governor is blatantly violating state ethics law and the permission he got from JCOPE to do this book,” he said.
Renewed scrutiny of Cuomo’s book deal
Cuomo’s decision to sign a book deal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing renewed scrutiny as he faces multiple scandals involving alleged sexual harassment, a hostile workplace environment and the underrepresenting of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.
Upon the book’s release in October, the USA TODAY Network New York filed a Freedom of Information Law request for any ethics opinions or approvals Cuomo received before signing his book deal.
On Wednesday evening, the governor’s office released its correspondence with Levine after more than five months of delay. The document was released about 90 minutes before the Times published its story suggesting Cuomo’s book deal exceeded $4 million.
The correspondence shows an attorney in Cuomo’s office, Judith Mogul, sought an ethics approval from JCOPE on July 10, 2020, as the governor was negotiating with publishers.
That same day, Cuomo first publicly mentioned the possibility of a book during an interview on WAMC-FM in Albany.
“I am now thinking about writing a book about what we went through, lessons learned, the entire experience, because if we don’t learn from this, then it will really compound the whole crisis that we’ve gone through,” he said.
Levine responded a week later, laying out a nine-point criteria Cuomo had to follow to comply with ethics rules. It was the same criteria Cuomo was required to follow in 2014, when he wrote a memoir that paid him $783,000 despite poor sales.
Among the rules laid out by Levine:
- The book must be written on the governor’s own time and not on state time.
- No state property, personnel or other resources may be utilized for activities associated with the book.
- The book may not be written for an organization or audience which is regulated by, regularly negotiates with, or has contracts with any state agency.
- The governor may not advertise, or otherwise promote or endorse, the book when he is performing his state duties.
Cuomo promoted the book heavily
In the ensuing months, Cuomo used the Executive Mansion as the setting for numerous interviews and events tied to the book’s release.
The 39-room, Queen Anne-style home in Albany is wholly owned by the state and is provided to the governor for use as a residence. Cuomo has used it as his main residence since 2019.
The mansion was the site of many remote television interviews promoting the book, including those on “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” “The Daily Show,” “The View,” “CBS This Morning” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” as well as virtual question-and-answer sessions he held with actor Billy Crystal and Bravo television personality Andy Cohen.
In a statement, Azzopardi said the interviews at the state-owned mansion weren’t facilitated by state personnel. He said they did not use public equipment to shoot the interviews, though he acknowledged some state aides may have staffed the interviews on their own time.
“Equipment used for media appearances for this project were paid for or provided privately and any staff who volunteered did so on their personal time,” he said.
Azzopardi defended the use of the mansion despite the JCOPE prohibition on using state resources for activities associated with the book. He noted the state Constitution requires the state to provide a “suitable and furnished executive residence” for the governor.
“The Executive mansion is treated differently than other state buildings because it is legally the Governor and First Family’s personal private residence,” he said in his statement. “The New York State Constitution clearly states that the Governor is entitled to a ‘suitable and furnished’ residence and as such, anything that comes with the mansion is available for his personal use.
The mansion was also the backdrop for an Oct. 1 private webinar for employees of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, the major global law firm.
More than 400 people signed up for the one-hour, closed-to-the-public Zoom call with Cuomo. All were promised a copy of Cuomo’s then-forthcoming book.
The book was later mailed to the employees with a bookmark featuring the Skadden logo and this note: “Please enjoy the Governor’s new book with our compliments.”
Skadden, meanwhile, had received a COVID-related state contract just seven months before. The firm received a Department of Health contract worth up to $1.5 million to vet the purchase of COVID-related medical equipment.
At the time of the event, Azzopardi pointed to the JCOPE guidance, which the governor’s office had not yet released publicly at that point. He said it allowed Cuomo to “promote the book as long as he does not use state resources or do so during an official event.”
Azzopardi defended the Skadden webinar again Thursday, saying the ethics rule prevents Cuomo from writing a book specifically for a firm with business before the state — such as a training manual or something similarly specific.
“This is not that case — the book was not written for Skadden,” he said. “It was quite obviously written for the general public. It’s not a training manual or writing targeted to a specialized audience.”
Staff helped Cuomo with book
In several instances, members of Cuomo’s gubernatorial staff appear to have been involved in the crafting or promotion of the book.
In October, Azzopardi provided reporters with advance excerpts from the book ahead of its release. He sent the excerpts from a personal Gmail account and said he took time off from his state job to volunteer for the effort.
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, who is Cuomo’s top aide, and Director of the Governor’s Office Stephanie Benton also had some involvement, according to the Times.
DeRosa was involved in some of the book pitch meetings with publishers and worked on editing a draft, the newspaper reported, while Benton twice asked executive assistants to print portions of a draft and bring them to Cuomo at the Executive Mansion.
The junior aides were also asked to type up notes for the book, according to the Times.
Like his own work associated with the book, Azzopardi said DeRosa and Benton volunteered their time to the effort. The same was true of any state aides who staffed his book interviews at the Executive Mansion, he said.
“To the extent an aide printed out a document, it appears incidental,” Azzopardi said in his statement.
Under the JCOPE approval, Cuomo was barred from advertising, endorsing or promoting the book while performing official state duties.
But on at least four occasions, Cuomo mentioned the book during official briefings, speeches or news conferences — sometimes on his own, and sometimes in response to a question about the book.
On an Aug. 19 conference call with reporters, Cuomo brought it up during his opening remarks.
“I said, ‘I’m doing a book on COVID,’ ” Cuomo said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re doing the history of COVID.’ And my book is not about the history of COVID because it’s not over. It is what we have learned, what we should learn, what we must do, how we handle this, and what we need to do in the second half of the game.”
He mentioned it again at a Nov. 15 speech he delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, which his office billed as a gubernatorial event.
“We have made mistakes during COVID,” Cuomo said. “I wrote a book on the lessons to be learned from the COVID crisis. I think of COVID as low tide for America.”
Azzopardi said the mentions during official events didn’t rise to the level of advertising or endorsing the book.
“An offhand mention about writing a book, or answering questions from the media about it in no way is an advertisement of endorsement of it,” he said. “Appearances to promote this outside project were done without state support to the widespread dissatisfaction of Albany reporters who complained that we weren’t advising these appearances.”
How much was Cuomo paid? He won’t say
Cuomo and his office have repeatedly refused to say how much the governor was paid for the book project.
An answer may not come until mid-May, when the Democrat is required to file a state-mandated disclosure form detailing any outside income he received in 2020. That’s also when tax filings are due; It’s long been tradition for New York governors to make their tax returns available to reporters upon filing.
Cuomo’s book has sold more than 40,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks sales. He has previously pledged to donate a portion of his proceeds to COVID-related causes, though he has not said exactly how much.
Azzopardi said a “significant portion” of Cuomo’s proceeds will go to charity.
“As is customary, disclosure of details of the Governor’s finances, as well as his charitable contributions, will be released in his annual tax returns and financial disclosure,” he said.
Kaehny, the Reinvent Albany executive director, accused Cuomo of “playing games” by refusing to release his book contract or compensation now.
“Anybody who wanted to be the slightest bit transparent and above board would have released the book contract and the amount of the contract back when it was negotiated and signed so it could be judged by the public whether or not it’s appropriate,” he said.
Who would investigate?
The state Public Officers Law prohibits the governor and any other officer of a state agency from using their position to secure “unwarranted privileges or exemptions” for their own benefit, including the use of state property, services or resources for “private business or other compensated nongovernmental purposes.”
It’s up to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate any potential violations of the Public Officers Law and levy fines, if needed.
But the commission has long faced criticism from government-reform advocates for its close ties to Cuomo and its complicated governance structure, which has hamstrung or blocked some potential investigations.
Levine, who wrote the approval memo for Cuomo’s book, referred comment to JCOPE spokesman Walt McClure.
“As you know, we cannot comment on any specific guidance or any matter that may or may not be the subject of an investigation or enforcement action,” McClure said Thursday.
Cuomo’s book deal will be examined by the state Assembly’s ongoing impeachment investigation into the governor, Assembly Judiciary Chairman Charles Lavine confirmed Wednesday.
But Lavine cautioned the bulk of the probe will continue to focus on sexual harassment allegations, the COVID nursing home death toll and potential safety issues at the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The governor is facing a separate complaint involving his book.
On Thursday, CREW, a Washington-based government-watchdog group, filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections, accusing Cuomo of using his political campaign for personal gain by having it promote his book last year.
The group pointed to several examples of the Cuomo campaign promoting the book through its social media channels and its extensive email list.
“The law is clear that you cannot spend campaign funds for your own personal benefit,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder said. “Because the money spent on book promotions appears to have been for the exclusive personal benefit of Governor Cuomo, he needs to be investigated.”
Includes reporting by Joseph Spector.
Jon Campbell is the New York State Team editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.