Ethics commish rips AG on $5M Cuomo COVID book clawback

Attorney General Letitia James is deliberately stalling on whether or not she’ll claw back the $5.1 million book profits from disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a top state ethics official charges.

Joint Commission on Public Ethics Commissioner Gary Lavine blasted James for her swift denial of an order last week that gave her office the authority to recoup Cuomo’s payday for the memoir ‘American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.’

“It’s a deliberate stall by James. It’s a political decision, ” Lavine told The Post Wednesday.

“The attorney general does not want to take action with respect to recovering the money,” he alleged.

The attorney general’s counsel, Larry Schimmel, argued last Thursday that JCOPE first needed to conduct their own investigative report and try to recover the funds from Cuomo – before calling on the AG for help. 

“I believe that Mr. Schimmel’s letter was crafted for the purposes of delaying action by the commission,” Lavine said.

Attorney General Letitia James’ lawyer argued that the JCOPE first needs to do its own investigation and attempt to recover the funds from Cuomo.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

JCOPE approved a resolution last Tuesday requiring Cuomo to turn over the book money to the AG and James would then decide where the profits would go – to state coffers, or back to the publisher. 

But James’ lawyers denied that request two days later in a letter.

“I believe that Mr. Schimmel’s letter was crafted for the purposes of delaying action by the commission,” Lavine, a state Senate Republican appointee, told The Post. 

James’ office meanwhile slammed Lavine’s criticisms, arguing the embattled panel – not known for transparency – is incorrect.

Last month the commission voted to rescind the approval it previously gave to Cuomo during the summer of 2020 to write his book. 

Commissioner David McNamara, a state Senate Republican appointee, argued in the resolution that Cuomo improperly obtained approval because he didn’t disclose that state property, resources and personnel — including staff volunteers — were used in connection with the preparation, writing, editing and publication of the book.

Andrew Cuomo
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo made $5.1 million from the book he wrote while in office.
AFP via Getty Images

The commission has also voted to conduct an internal investigation into why JCOPE staff members gave permission to write the book – rather than put the decision to a full panel vote. 

“This is the height of hypocrisy. Since it was established, JCOPE has shirked responsibility and failed to take meaningful action on any issue regarding ethics, and this is just the latest example,” a James spokesperson told The Post.

“There are rules and laws in this state, and in stark contrast to JCOPE, the attorney general’s office actually follows and enforces those laws universally, not only when expedient.”

Sources also said a group of JCOPE commissioners, as well as Chairman Jose Nieves and Executive Director Sanford Berland, met during an informal conference call on Monday to discuss next steps. 

They will send a response letter to James’ office later this week, arguing her denial was made in error.

Cuomo's book
JCOPE approved a resolution last Tuesday requiring Cuomo to turn over the book money to the attorney general.

“The letter argues that we have the authority to revoke, we have the authority to order a disgorgement and we have the authority to enforce the order of disgorgement – despite the attorney general’s decision,” said Lavine.

“The AG’s letter states a couple of different positions that are legally incorrect,” a JCOPE source close to the deliberations who requested anonymity told The Post. 

The source said state law doesn’t say JCOPE must conduct an investigation, only that it has the option to – contrary to James’ position. 

“With respect to the disgorgement…they’re misconstruing what’s going on here. This is not a collection action impacting the state treasury. This is an order compelling the former governor to perform an act – that act being to return the funds to the publisher. It’s not a collection proceeding.

“It’s not money the state paid out and the state is entitled to retain – it’s merely depriving the former governor the benefit of outside activity for which he obtained without approval,” the source said.

James’ office meanwhile is conducting a separate, criminal probe into Cuomo’s book deal.