NY AG: Not so fast on seizing Cuomo's book deal cash

AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

Earlier this week, we learned that the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) had rescinded their approval of Andrew Cuomo’s book deal from last year and ordered that he turn over the $5.1 million he received as an advance to the state Attorney General, Letitia James. That would clearly be a bitter pill to swallow for the former governor and his attorney said he would “see them in court” if they tried to collect. But now a new wrinkle in the story has emerged. The designated recipient of all of that money has some questions she would like answered before anyone starts unloading pallets of cash at her doorstep. Attorney General James has issued a statement saying that JCOPE needs to provide her with the details of how this repayment would be legally handled. Or at least that’s the story her office is feeding to the public for now. (Associated Press)

New York’s ethics commission has more work to do if it wants to seize the millions of dollars former Gov. Andrew Cuomo earned writing a book about the COVID-19 pandemic, the state attorney general’s office said in a letter Thursday…

The commission, which has regulatory oversight over lobbyists and government officials, concluded Cuomo had improperly gotten help from state employees to write and promote the book, and as such had to forfeit his earnings, which could reach $5.1 million.

In a letter to the commission Thursday, however, the attorney general’s office said more steps had to be taken before it would get involved in trying to collect the money.

If you go back to what I wrote on Tuesday, I raised some of the same questions. It doesn’t seem entirely clear whether JCOPE has the authority to claw back an ethics approval that they had already issued after the payment was made. Even less clear is how such a disbursement of funds would be made. So there may be more to this story than initially meets the eye.

The AG is specifically asking for an entirely new investigative report detailing which laws have been broken and what financial penalties are allowed in response, including specific sums. She’s also seeking “a record of the administrative process, and the statutory authority for the decision.” Hinting at even more reluctance to get involved, James also wants proof that the commission has “exhausted efforts to collect the debt.”

It’s not as if I’m a person you would expect to be going to bat for Cuomo here, but his attorney has made several arguable points and the Attorney General’s office is clearly giving consideration to those objections. While the unethical acts that Cuomo is accused of (using government personnel and resources to produce and publish his book) are technically against the law, he’s never even been charged with a crime yet, to say nothing of being convicted. All he has against him is a report from the ethics committee.

Further, most crimes that are eligible for any sort of fine generally include specific amounts that can be levied. While not entirely unheard of, it’s at least unusual for a government body to simply say, “give us all the money.” In that regard, the requests being made by the OAG aren’t unreasonable at all.

And then there are the political considerations involved. Andrew Cuomo’s popularity in the state has plummeted and even his closest Democratic allies have been abandoning him in droves. It’s possible that JCOPE may have thought that they had him on the ropes and if they simply issued a demand for the money Cuomo would meekly comply just to avoid yet another bad headline. When he had his attorney push back and threaten to challenge them in court, the formula probably changed quite a bit.

For her part, Letitia James has become a prominent rival of Cuomo’s and was seen as a threat to replace him as governor. She no doubt wants to avoid the embarrassment of saying she was going to comply with the commission and go take the cash, only to potentially lose that battle in court. If the Attorney General comes away from a situation like this appearing as if she didn’t even understand the laws involved, well… let’s just say that’s not a very good look.

Andrew Cuomo still may wind up forfeiting some, if not all of his book deal advance. But if that happens, it probably won’t take place for years. There are likely to be quite a few legal steps involved and Cuomo can afford the sort of attorneys who will be able to fight this demand tooth and claw and potentially even prevail.