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State ethics commission with powers to investigate Cuomo has troubled history

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have violated state ethics laws, according to published reports, that he used his staff to help him write a book on how he managed the COVID-19 pandemic, and that he gave his family and politically connected associates priority access to coronavirus tests.

But the state’s ethics commission, which has the power to investigate the allegations, has a poor track record investigating claims of corruption.

Reports in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Albany Times Union said Cuomo used State Police and a top health department epidemiologist to provide coronavirus tests last spring to his family, including his brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, who became ill with the virus; his mother, Matilda Cuomo; and one of his sisters. At the time, testing resources were extremely limited and thousands of New Yorkers ill or dying from the virus had no access to testing.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, denied that anyone was given special preference. 

Also, allegations in the New York Times said Cuomo used his staff to help him write a book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” on his successes managing the pandemic, even though an attorney at the state ethics panel had told him he could not use state property, resources or personnel to help him produce or promote the book.

The governor’s spokesman said the staff was volunteering their time.

John Kaehny with the reform group Reinvent Albany said the actions would be in conflict with existing state ethics rules.

“If what the governor is alleged to have done is true, it’s a clear violation of public officers laws,” Kaehny said.

The law states that state officials can’t use their official position to “secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions” for themselves or others, including the misappropriation of property, services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated nongovernmental purposes.

“That means that you can’t use state resources to benefit your family or friends or anyone, because that’s not fair and it’s wrong,” Kaehny said.

He said Cuomo, a veteran of state government, would know about the law.

Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt and state Attorney General Tish James, who is investigating the governor on sexual harassment allegations, are among those who said the state’s Joint Commission Public Ethics should also look into the matter.

But the Joint Ethics Commission, known as JCOPE, has a flawed track record when it comes to investigating the state’s elected officials. The results of probes of the governor’s former top aide, Joe Percoco, who is now in prison on a federal corruption conviction, and a former Senate co-leader, Jeff Klein, over sexual harassment charges, have never been announced. JCOPE has also never sanctioned two former legislative leaders, Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, who are both in prison on federal charges.

The commission is designed to make it difficult to launch investigations. Eight of the 14 commissioners must vote yes to begin a probe. The governor appoints six of the commissioners, and legislative leaders of both political parties appoint the remaining eight.

In the past, votes have often split along party lines, making it difficult to get eight members to all agree.

But there are signs that when it comes to investigating Cuomo, that could be changing.

In a March 23 meeting, seven legislative appointees on the commission voted to subpoena Cuomo’s office to get more information about Larry Schwartz, a former aide now volunteering for the governor who was accused of potentially trading political support from county leaders for the embattled governor for access to COVID-19 vaccines. The governor’s six commissioners all voted no. Since eight votes were needed, the motion went nowhere.

But earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins filled a vacancy on the commission, and the Legislature will now have eight commissioners.

JCOPE has called a special meeting for April 9, but has not named the reason for the meeting. A spokesman said an agenda will be posted in advance of the gathering.

Susan Lerner with Common Cause said she does not have high hopes that the troubled ethics commission will authorize or conduct a thorough investigation.

“At this particular point, JCOPE unfortunately has no credibility,” Lerner said. “And is not capable of investigating anything that happens.”

Lerner said the attorney general’s public integrity bureau would conduct a more credible investigation.

Kaehny agreed that the ethics commission has been a “massive disappointment,” but he said it’s possible that the dynamics are changing.

“The public’s expectations are that JCOPE is a joke, it does nothing,” he said. “Maybe this new member appointed by Andrea Stewart-Cousins will change the voting so that they can issue subpoenas and investigate this and enforce the ethics law.”

JCOPE is not the only investigative body that could be involved. The State Assembly began an impeachment inquiry over allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women against the governor, and to look at allegations the governor and his staff hid the actual number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19.

The impeachment inquiry will now also be looking at the alleged favoritism concerning the coronavirus tests and the allegations about the book deal.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.