New York's main ethics and lobbying regulator will require former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to return the proceeds from his book about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo has 30 days to turn over the money to state Attorney General Letitia James' office.
There are some potential complications: Cuomo placed $1 million from the book proceeds into a blind trust for his daughters. He also donated $500,000 to the United Way in New York state. And income tax returns Cuomo made publicly available last April indicated he was yet to receive the full $5.1 million that had been part of the contract with his publisher.
"This is unprecedented territory because nothing like this ever happened before," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "No one in their wildest dreams thought a sitting governor -- the highest paid governor in country -- would go out and get a $5 million book contract."
The ethics commission earlier this year moved to rescind what had been staff approval in 2020 for the ex-governor to write the book, which had been predicated on Cuomo not using government resources to write it.
A report released last month by the Democratic-led Assembly Judiciary Committee found Cuomo used state resources — including government staff — to help him write the book. Cuomo and his aides have maintained government officials and staff who worked on the book did so on a volunteer basis, comparing it to legislative aides working weekend and off hours on political campaigns.
In a statement, Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi called the decision "political hypocrisy and duplicity at its worst."
"Governor Cuomo received a JCOPE opinion and advice of counsel stating that government resources could not be used -- and they weren't -- and any staffer who assisted in this project did so on their own time, which was reflected on their timesheets," Azzopardi said. "If Speaker Heastie, Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Hochul's JCOPE appointees have created a new standard whereby government staffers cannot volunteer their own time for non-governmental purposes, they should all be equally prosecuted under the same standard and be forced to repay the state for volunteer work on their re-election campaigns."
But witnesses told Assembly investigators they were not under the impression working on the book was voluntary, and indeed was a central focus of the governor's office during that time.
Staffers also told investigators they were diverted from other matters, including work on the COVID pandemic, to help with the book's production.
"This volunteer argument thing doesn't make any sense because when legislative staffers are volunteering on a campaign, they're not putting money in the pocket of the elected official," Horner said.
James' office is separately investigating the use of government resources to help Cuomo write "American Crisis."
Cuomo resigned Aug. 24 after James' office released a report detailing allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by Cuomo.
Cuomo attorney Jim McGuire said a legal challenge is coming if clawback is enforced.
“JCOPE’s actions today are unconstitutional, exceed its own authority and appear to be driven by political interests rather than the facts and the law," McGuire said.
It's not yet clear if James will require Cuomo to return the money, and a spokesman for her office said Tuesday afternoon the resolution by the commission remains under review.
"Lawyers will fight it out about what JCOPE can do. But what's right is the governor has said he wouldn't use public resources to write the book," said NYPIRG's Horner. "He did, and so JCOPE has a good argument."
But there are also questions over whether sitting governors should profit from their office. Some lawmakers, including Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, want to ban lucrative contracts like book deals.
"Hopefully people don't get into public service to try to make a fortune," Barclay said. "Here the governor was making $5 million -- it wasn't a small amount."
Cuomo had previously written a book in 2014 while in office, part of a six-figure deal that led to him collecting about $700,000 in income. The $5.1 million contract, however, was far more generous.
And the controversy has also spread to the ethics commission itself, which initially approved Cuomo's book. There are bipartisan calls in Albany for the commission to be overhauled.
"Ultimately we should scrap JCOPE," Barclay said. "We ought to the a bipartisan ethics committee to cover the governor and the Legislature."