New York ethics commission refers two Cuomo-linked questions for investigation

The officials hold off seeking an investigation into disgraced governor’s book deal.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo
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New York’s beleaguered ethics watchdog agency has referred for investigation two misconduct cases tied to the Cuomo administration.

However, the agency held off on a decision to reconsider a multimillion-dollar book deal involving the recently resigned governor.

The nearly four-hour Joint Commission on Public Ethics meeting on Thursday was mired in chaos. The 13 current members debated each other about agenda items and what could be discussed in either open or closed session. With most of the members meeting virtually, side conversations and commissioner comments could be heard, sometimes louder than the pertinent discussions.

One commissioner muttered an expletive as members sought to change the agenda order. Then, just before the members went into a closed session, one commissioner said to another, “Sorry about your golf game.”

JCOPE was a member shy at Thursday’s session due to the recent resignation of Chair Camille Varlack. Appointed to lead the panel by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she stepped down effective Aug. 14.

Her departure, though, was not tied to Cuomo’s resignation due to the sexual harassment allegations. Rather, as Spectrum News reported earlier this month, she agreed to serve just for six months when the then-governor tabbed her to lead it in February.

Eventually, the commissioners voted, 8-0 with five abstentions, on Commissioner Gary Lavine’s motion to refer an allegation of misconduct that stems from a January 2019 meeting to Attorney General Letitia James. A then-JCOPE commissioner said she was confronted about her vote to investigate Joe Percoco, an aide to Cuomo, for allegedly using state resources for Cuomo’s reelection campaign.

JCOPE votes that happen in closed session are not to be disclosed. Julie Garcia said the day after the vote, she heard from an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who told her Cuomo was upset with her vote.

Commissioners chose not to investigate Percoco, who was convicted on federal bribery charges in 2018.

Garcia’s allegation led to an inspector general’s investigation, but the inspector general reported in October that it could not prove her allegations. Investigators, though, did not interview either Cuomo or Heastie.

Garcia, who resigned after the inspector general’s report, testified Wednesday before a Senate Ethics Committee considering ethics reforms that she did not know neither the speaker nor governor was questioned until “the media actually started asking questions.”

By the same margin, JCOPE commissioners also approved another Lavine motion asking James to review the inspector general’s inquiry as well. In both votes, the five abstentions were Cuomo appointees who said they had questions they wanted to ask JCOPE attorneys in closed session before they cast their vote.

The commission, which was the main subject of a lengthy state Senate hearing Wednesday, has faced questions for years about its ability to investigate top officials in state government. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said a new agency is needed to ensure public confidence against corruption.

“The commission is the object, justifiably, of caustic cynicism and ridicule,” Lavine said. “It is unlikely we will even be in existence at the end of six months.”

While Lavine was able to get votes for the attorney general referrals, his hopes to get a public vote on rescinding JCOPE’s approval of the deal Cuomo made last year to write a book on his management of the COVID-19 pandemic were not successful.

The commission did go into closed session to discuss that matter, and roughly two hours later, JCOPE came back into open session. However, the audio feed cut in late. The New York Post reported that the book deal will come back for discussion at the Sept. 14 meeting.

As the audio came back, Commissioner William Fisher, a Cuomo appointee, gave details about a closed session discussion regarding Executive Director Sanford Berland’s testimony at the Senate hearing Wednesday.

The commissioners asked Berland to add to his testimony by providing senators information on the work staff members perform. On Wednesday, the former judge struggled to answer senators’ questions on that topic.

“We also talked about reports of the demise of JCOPE and one of our fellow commissioners stated to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of the demise of JCOPE are greatly exaggerated,” Fisher said. “And we certainly hope that’s the case.”

Before the commissioners adjourned, Lavine stated publicly he did not join in Fisher’s statement.