Ethics watchdog taps outside firm to fight Andrew Cuomo over book deal profits

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics has tapped a white-shoe law firm to represent them in a last-minute bid to stay solvent just weeks before they are expected to go out of business.

The embattled public integrity commission — criticized for allowing disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make millions off a book deal during the deadly  COVID-19 outbreak — has retained the global firm Hogan Lovells to defend it in a lawsuit filed by Cuomo earlier this month.

Cuomo claims the ethics watchdog acted with “extraordinary bias” against him by trying to force him to return the profits after initially approving the $5.2 million contract for “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

JCOPE has an existing $300,000 contract with Hogan Lovells.

The firm has been awarded more than $50 million in state government contracts since 2009, including helping CUNY clean up a spending scandal with its research foundation and providing legal services to SUNY’s hospitals and representing the state Assembly.

JCOPE was forced to turn to outside counsel because state Attorney General Letitia James, whose office typically defends state agencies in litigation, declined to represent the commission, citing a conflict, sources said.

James has her own ongoing probe on whether Cuomo violated the law by using government workers and other resources to prepare the book. Cuomo said he followed the rules and executive staffers who assisted on the book did so voluntarily and on their own time.

New York Attorney General Letitia James declined to represent the commission, citing a conflict.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images/Tayfun Coskun

Her office has also questioned the legality of JCOPE’s belated action to force Cuomo to cough up the book profits.

A spokesperson for the AG said it would not be appropriate to represent JCOPE in the Cuomo case, without commenting further.

JCOPE revoked their prior OK for Cuomo to write the book after claiming he violated pledges not to use “state property, resources and personnel” while making “serial omissions and misrepresentations.”

JCOPE commissioners briefly discussed the Cuomo case during a public meeting Tuesday.

Andrew Cuomo book
Cuomo disclosed that he was paid a $3.1 million advance to write his COVID-19 leadership book last year.
AP

“We have retained counsel for the [Cuomo] litigation. We’re making filings in that case,” said JCOPE chairman Jose Nieves.

Another commissioner said there was not much choice in the matter.

“The attorney general has refused to represent us….. We have an obligation to forward,” said James Yates, an appointee of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Under its existing contract, Hogan Lovells has aided JCOPE in responding to subpoenas from the AG’s office and its independent probe of the circumstances surrounding the ethics watchdog’s initial OK of the Cuomo book contract.

A JCOPE spokesman declined to comment on the payment terms for Hogan Lovells to defend it in the Cuomo case.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie talks with reporters about NY’s budget at the state Capitol on Apr. 4, 2022.
AP/Hans Pennink
Kathy Hochul
NY Governor Kathy Hochul at the opening of the renovated Pier 57 on Apr. 18,2022.
J. Messerschmidt/NY Post

JCOPE is scheduled to go out of business in July and be replaced by a newly constituted 11-member ethics commission — the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government — just approved by Gov. Hochul and lawmakers as part of the recently approved state budget.

The new panel could approve investigations and actions with a simple majority vote, ending the two-thirds super-majority now needed to pass resolutions that allowed appointees of Cuomo or the Legislature to kill probes.

One watchdog group noted that JCOPE didn’t take action against Cuomo until after he was forced to resign in a misconduct scandal under the threat of impeachment.

“It’s always easy to take action when someone is out of office,” said Rachel Faus, a senior analyst with Reinvent Albany.

“The mistake was made. The genie is out of the battle. The book deal should not have been approved in the first place,” she said.

The Cuomo camp mocked JCOPE.

“Just when we thought this couldn’t get any more foolish, JJOKE was told by the AG they were violating the law, so they wasted more taxpayer money & hired their own lawyer!,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.