Amid Cuomo book scandal, ethics agency beefs up review of outside income

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The state’s ethics agency tightened its rule for scrutinizing the outside income deals of statewide elected officials after being criticized for mishandling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial $4 million book contract.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics had delegated the authority to its staff to review and sign off on the terms of Cuomo’s memoir — “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-10 Pandemic.”

Some JCOPE commissioners complained they never had the opportunity to inspect, let alone approve, the terms of the reported $4 million book contract.

Cuomo now faces multiple probes over accusations that he improperly used state government workers and resources to help prepare the book in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee and state attorney general are looking into the allegations, as is JCOPE.

The resolution approved by JCOPE Tuesday said “the executive director is not authorized to issue informal letter opinions, or otherwise grant approval, to a Statewide Elected Official…..regarding outside activities, honoraria….”

The submissions will now have to be reviewed and approved by JCOPE’s commissioners.

The commissioners would also inspect and opine on outside income requests from state agency heads, according to the resolution.

“If the resolution didn’t pass I would have sued the commission,” said JCOPE Commissioner Gary Lavine, a Republican appointee who for months has criticized the ethics agency’s handling of the Cuomo book deal.

“The process was improper. The book deal should have been brought to the commission, not the staff,” said Lavine.

A government watchdog group praised the new rule, though adding “the horse is already out of the barn” regarding Cuomo’s book deal.

“It’s a positive step. The staff shouldn’t be allowed to give a permission slip for a $4 million book contract,” said Reinvent Albany director John Kaehny.

JCOPE’s stop staff over the years, including general counsel Monica Stamm and chairwoman Camille Joseph Varlack, used to work for Cuomo, Kaehny noted.

Cuomo has repeatedly claimed there was no misuse of government resources because staffers “volunteered to work on the book.”

“Some people were mentioned in the book. I wanted to make sure they were OK with the mention. I wanted to make sure it represented what they did and the facts correctly,” he said last week.

JCOPE spent more than two hours in private session discussing various probes — though it refused to name the targets when it returned to public session.

“The commission authorized steps in several investigative matters, closed two matters, and discussed several other investigative matters,” said JCOPE counsel Monica Stamm.

The public portion of the meeting was often testy, with Lavine and Varlack arguing when to discuss “other business” — before or after executive session.

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