Officials who worked around-the-clock on the state’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic were livid after hearing that ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plot to publish a “leadership” book began on before the worst of the outbreak even hit New York.
“We were not even at the height of the pandemic in March ,” said one source who participated in the response to evidence unearthed in the Assembly Judiciary Committee’s impeachment probe report on Cuomo.
The governor’s emergency directive ordering the closure of non-essential businesses didn’t take place until March 22, 2020, but his literary agent had already started having conversation with publisher Penguin/Random House about the book three days earlier.
By July 1, Cuomo had a 70,000-word manuscript prepared for the book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons for the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
“We were scrambling to make sure we had enough hospital beds, that we had enough ventilators,” fumed the state official involved in the COVID-19 response, who requested anonymity because of ongoing probes of Cuomo.
The source also said Cuomo staffers were not informed of the specific agreement with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics about the book.
One of the provisions said, “No State property, personnel or other resources may be utilized for activities associated with the book.” That language calls into question Cuomo’s claim that staffers were allowed to work on the book voluntarily and on their own time.
Officials also expressed surprise by the whopping $5.1 million paycheck he’d receive for the tome.
“It’s making people wonder how that offer and those conversations so early on factored into the COVID response. If you were aware from the very early days [you were writing a book], how does it impact how you operationalize response and make decisions?,” a second official in the Cuomo team’s emergency response said.
“None of the rank and file staff knew about that.”
The Albany insider added, “It is frustrating because there were a lot of people working these insane hours and doing everything they could to build hospitals or set up testing sites or help with the response efforts and PPE and I think now all of that is going to be tainted by the fact in the background of all it there was a book deal being negotiated.”
In terms of Cuomo’s book, state Attorney General Letitia James has an open criminal investigation on whether Cuomo violated the state Public Officers Law, which forbids public officials from using state resources for personal gain. The FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn’s Eastern District also have made inquiries about the book.
It was James’ office investigative report released in August that found Cuomo sexually harassed or mistreated several women — including staffers and a state trooper — that forced the three-term governor’s resignation in August.
The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics last week revoked its prior approval of Cuomo’s book contract, citing violations such as misuse of state staffers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also weighed in Wednesday, calling new revelations of alleged wrongdoing by Cuomo in the Assembly report “a very clear pattern of abuse of power” and saying he ex-governor should pay the state back “anything he used inappropriately.”
Former top prosecutors — including ex-Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holltzman and state Attorney General Dennis Vacco — on Tuesday blasted Cuomo’s use of executive chamber staffers to help complete the book. Holtzman said Cuomo should reimburse the state for using governmental employees and Vacco said the use of state resources likely broke the law.
But a Cuomo rep defended the governor’s handling of the book, insisting its preparation did not influence his decisions on the pandemic.
“Everyone worked night and day to make sure the hospital system didn’t break, that testing was stood up and that we beat back the pandemic with little to no help from the federal government and negotiations on the book did not begin until after the first wave subsided in July,” said Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi, who earlier this week claimed that staffers’ work on the book was voluntary and legal, despite some testimony included in the Assembly report saying otherwise.