Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo won a lawsuit Tuesday after a state Supreme Court ruled against a now-disbanded ethics agency that attempted to force the ex-governor to repay $5.1 million in profits he received from a book deal detailing his administration’s early response to the COVID pandemic.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) accused Cuomo last year of misusing state resources and staff to write “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic,” which Cuomo’s legal team denied, and the governor himself did not dispute that his staff helped with its publication, but only voluntarily.
Politico reports that Albany County Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman issued a 17-page decision that sided with Cuomo, determining that the ethics commission overstepped its authority and violated due process by not following the order to bring an action against the former governor.
“JCOPE was seeking to impose sanctions for Cuomo’s alleged non-compliance with JCOPE’s outside activities rules,” Hartman wrote. However, state law says it can “impose sanctions only for violation of the statute, not for violations of JCOPE’s rules.”
Times Union reports the judge said, “JCOPE issued the approval for the outside activity, then unilaterally determined wrongdoing, then withdrew the approval, and finally imposed the disgorgement penalty.”
Governor Cuomo’s attorney Rita Glavin said in a statement that the rule of law prevailed and exposed the ethics commission’s “utter lawlessness” against the former New York leader.
“JCOPE’s conduct was shameful, unlawful, and a waste of taxpayer’s funds,” Glavin said.
Cuomo and the state legislature created the ethics commission a decade ago until it disassembled last March after facing criticism that the 14-member panel controlled decision-making.
Cuomo resigned last year amid allegations of sexual harassment scandals and misreporting of about 50% of COVID deaths in nursing homes. Republican and Democratic lawmakers lambasted the governor for suppressing the death toll as the ink dried on his contract to write a memoir about his pandemic response.
On March 25, 2020, Andrew Cuomo ordered that COVID-positive senior citizens could not be “denied re-admission or admission to the [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”
The state reported 6,600 nursing home deaths from the coronavirus in August 2020. The New York Times estimates the accurate number of nursing home deaths total 15,000.
Governor Cuomo’s aide Melissa DeRosa confessed to state legislators that the administration “basically” froze the death toll.
“We weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the [Trump administration] Department of Justice … was going to be used against us, [and] we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said.
Democratic state assembly member Ronald Kim went public with the allegations, saying Cuomo called “to threaten my career if I did not cover up for” him.
Cuomo still has another ongoing probe into allegations he used state resources to write his book of pandemic memoirs from Attorney General Tish James and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, per Politico.
If the ethics commission revamps with a new panel, Justice Hartman’s latest opinion suggests it could launch another action against Cuomo if it chooses.
Ben Johnson contributed to this report.