This week, Gov. Cuomo's $5 million book deal finally came to light, after months of questions over how much the governor was paid for a book written about the fight against COVID-19.
Now, state lawmakers are planning on holding hearings on the state’s little-known Ethics Commission, which signed off on the deal.
Much of the state capitol remains in shock over the eye-popping sum that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was paid to write a book on fighting the COVID-19 crisis — a book that was published last year, long before the pandemic began to subside.
“Well, it’s mind blowingly large,” said Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit group. “His last book deal was around $700,000. His roping $5 million for his book seems like a staggering amount of money, particularly for someone who is a full time public employee.”
But what remains unclear is how the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, approved that deal with very little public disclosure.
Critics say the makeup of JCOPE itself is fundamentally flawed. And this summer, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, the chair of the Ethics Committee, plans to hold the first of two hearings focusing on the troubled ethics agency.
“We can and absolutely should hold hearings about the construction of JCOPE, about how JCOPE has made decisions, how we can compare New York’s Ethics Commission to other states, and so a hearing is a perfect place to do this,” said Biaggi.
Reports indicate that JCOPE staff approved Cuomo’s book deal, not the actual appointed commissioners. That seems highly irregular, given the size of the contract.
JCOPE largely operates in secrecy, and a spokesperson for the agency declined to comment.
State lawmakers are looking to pass a constitutional amendment that would eliminate JCOPE altogether, and create a new, more transparent ethics watchdog.
“Since the creation of JCOPE, it’s always been very closely tied to the Executive Branch,” Biaggi said. “The governor appoints close to 50% of the members of JCOPE, and it does not operate by a majority vote. At least two members of the 14-member commisison can veto an investigation, so those are just some of the reasons why we need to pass a constitutional amendment.”
State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she is open to the idea of approving the first pass constitutional amendment before the end of the session next month. It must pass again in the next legislative session before going to voters in a referendum. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would not respond to whether he is also open to making the change.
Biaggi hopes to hold her second hearing on the agency in December.