Cuomo wins lawsuit against now-defunct JCOPE, won't have to pay back $5.1M from book deal

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Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo landed a win in court Tuesday, after an Albany State Supreme Court judge ruled that for now, he doesn’t have to relinquish the proceeds from his pandemic memoir.

Cuomo sued the now defunct New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, in April, alleging that the agency violated his constitutional rights in its efforts to claw back $5.1 million from the book deal.

The book, "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic," was published in 2020 and details Cuomo’s navigation of the pandemic’s early days in New York, the epicenter for some of the worst COVID outbreaks in the nation. Cuomo resigned last August over sexual harassment allegations from multiple women.

On Tuesday, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman ruled that JCOPE bypassed due process procedures as it ping-ponged between greenlighting Cuomo’s original request to author and publish the book, then withdrawing that approval and finally issuing a demand that Cuomo pay back the book’s proceeds. 

“JCOPE issued the approval for the outside activity, then withdrew the approval, and finally imposed the disgorgement penalty - all without an opportunity for a due process hearing explicitly provided” under state law, Hartman wrote in her ruling.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in New York.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in New York.

JCOPE is now disbanded, thanks to a law from Gov. Kathy Hochul this spring that created a new ethics agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government. The new Commission can decide on its own whether to pursue Cuomo’s book proceeds in court at a later time, Hartman ruled.

Cuomo’s team saw the ruling as a victory for the embattled former governor, saying it underscores their claims that his recent brushes with state officials, including the Attorney General’s investigative report that detailed harassment allegations from 11 women, were mostly about politics.

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“As the court rightly pointed out, JCOPE - clearly in an attempt to settle petty political grievances - violated its own laws and procedures,” said Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi. “Every time one of these cases goes before a neutral arbiter, the law prevails.”

JCOPE gave Cuomo the go-ahead to write his book in July 2020, provided he follow several conditions, including ensuring that state resources were not used in the book’s creation. Months later, JCOPE said new information had emerged that Cuomo had utilized state resources, including state workers, to help get the book done.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is writing a new book, American Crisis, set to hit shelves on Oct. 13, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is writing a new book, American Crisis, set to hit shelves on Oct. 13, 2020.

Cuomo denied this, but JCOPE forged ahead, revoking its approval and demanding in December 2021 that he pay $5.1 million in book proceeds to the state. It reiterated this demand several times into 2022, after Cuomo had resigned, saying that he “lacked legal authority to engage in outside activity and receive compensation” from the book, according to court filings.

Meanwhile, Hochul signaled she’d scrap JCOPE, saying it was “irreparably broken” and that it “failed to earn the public's trust."

"We must replace JCOPE with a new, truly independent watchdog with real teeth,” she said in January. She later signed legislation that would replace JCOPE with the current ethics agency - JCOPE officially folded last month.

This year, a report by law firm Hogan Lovells found that Cuomo and his team misled JCOPE over the book’s trajectory and pressured the agency into compliance, and JCOPE failed at multiple points to execute its responsibilities and ethical procedures, the report alleges. Hogan Lovells represented JCOPE in its legal tangle with Cuomo.

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Andrew Cuomo wins lawsuit, won't have to pay back $5.1M from book deal