New York

Cuomo Wins Book Lawsuit, Leaving New York’s Ethics Panel in Limbo

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s legal fight to preserve the proceeds of a $5.1 million book deal took a stunning turn on Monday when a state judge essentially invalidated New York’s new ethics commission, which was investigating the book deal.

Justice Thomas Marcelle of State Supreme Court in Albany agreed with Mr. Cuomo’s lawyers that the new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government was created unconstitutionally, removing enforcement powers from the governor. The decision seemingly rendered the 11-member panel obsolete. Gov. Kathy Hochul has vowed to appeal the decision.

The ruling is Mr. Cuomo’s latest victory in his quest to restore his reputation since he resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and under threat of impeachment. Five district attorneys had opened investigations into his behavior but declined to pursue them or dropped charges.

Mr. Cuomo has been embroiled in a legal battle with both the current commission and its prior incarnation, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, over a finding that he violated state ethics laws in the writing of his pandemic memoir, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Although JCOPE had previously approved the deal, it reversed its position in 2021 and ordered Mr. Cuomo to forfeit the proceeds, saying that the approval had been granted under false pretenses. Mr. Cuomo was also accused of using state resources to write the book. An investigation ensued, and Mr. Cuomo sued JCOPE.

When Ms. Hochul took office, she disbanded JCOPE and formed the new ethics commission, which continued the investigation of Mr. Cuomo and his book. Mr. Cuomo sued the new commission as well.

“Governor Hochul worked with the Legislature to craft a new, truly independent ethics body that could begin to restore New Yorkers’ faith in their public officials,” Avi Small, the governor’s press secretary said in a statement. “Today’s decision undermines the independent ethics commission created by Governor Hochul, and we will work with the commission to support an appeal.”

Some legal experts and watchdog groups have also spoken out against the decision, which they say misreads state law. “This shoddy decision should be immediately overturned on appeal before it paralyzes the important work of the state ethics commission overseeing lobbying activity, guarding against conflicts of interest and ensuring the ethical behavior of public officials,” a statement from Reinvent Albany said.

In creating the new commission, Ms. Hochul set up an independent panel to vet appointees to the board. Made up of deans from New York’s law schools, the panel was aimed at limiting political influence on the commission — a weakness of JCOPE that government watchdogs complained Mr. Cuomo exploited to his advantage.

The ruling from Justice Marcelle took issue with both the role of the deans and the Legislature in vetting and appointing commission members, agreeing with the arguments of Mr. Cuomo’s team that the setup reassigned powers that belong to the governor to others, in violation of the State Constitution.

“The commission, by design, yanks enforcement responsibility of the ethics laws from the governor,” wrote Justice Marcelle, who was tapped for a federal judgeship by President Donald J. Trump but blocked by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat.

The 11-member commission is made up of three appointees from the governor, two each from the Senate and Assembly majorities, and one from the state comptroller, attorney general and each of the legislative minorities. The board has broad authorities to ensure ethics compliance for more than 300,000 employees including those in state agencies, public benefit corporations and public universities.

In the years since he left office, Mr. Cuomo has denied wrongdoing and dismissed the claims against him as politically motivated, all the while fighting back against perceived enemies.

“As we’ve said all along, this was nothing more than an attack by those who abused their government positions unethically and, as the judge ruled today, unconstitutionally for political purposes,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo. “Truth and reason won, mob rule lost today.”

Monday’s ruling left an uncertain path forward for ethics enforcement in state. Changing the State Constitution to allow for an independent ethics board would take years, and during that time, conceivably, there could be no watchdog.

“If the decision of the judge holds, it blows up ethics enforcement in New York State,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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