Cuomo Federal Investigation

FAMILY 'REUNION' IN STORE? Andrew Cuomo during his father's 2015 funeral described Joe Percoco as Mario Cuomo's 'third son,' but he quickly disowned him after he was convicted in 2018 of corruption charges. Now the former Governor could be looking at criminal charges of his own, and someone who's dealt with him over the years said that his former top aide and confidant was one of the few people who might have been able to warn him away from the behavior that's put him in legal jeopardy.   

Some people who have worked with Andrew Cuomo over the years say the mix of overbearing come-ons to women and greed-driven corruption that have left his career in flames resulted from the departure of people who were close enough to him that he would pay attention if they disapproved of his behavior.

One name that comes up is that of Sandra Lee, his longtime girlfriend until the relationship ended more than two years ago. A more-surprising steadying influence, according to one person who dealt extensively with the former Governor, was Joe Percoco, his former top aide and longtime confidant.

For anyone who listened to the tapes that were part of the evidence that got Mr. Percoco a six-year Federal prison sentence on bribery charges growing out of the Buffalo Billion economic-development project, it's a bit of a leap to imagine him as a calm, rational voice in Mr. Cuomo's ear. His chortling about payoff money he referred to as "ziti," a euphemism stolen from an episode of "The Sopranos," added to his image as a senior delinquent whose primary value to the Governor was as an intimidator bringing reluctant elected officials into line.

But just as a drinking buddy might convince someone he'd had enough because their carousing together over the years gave him more moral authority than those who didn't indulge, Mr. Percoco could penetrate Mr. Cuomo's brain by telling him, in effect, you won't wanna do that.

With Mr. Percoco in prison and Ms. Lee having paroled herself from a relationship that reportedly wasn't all about the Governor being a constant companion when she underwent a mastectomy six years ago, this narrative goes, Mr. Cuomo was left surrounded by enablers, and the rest is bad history.

Victim of His Own Bad Character

But this wasn't a matter of bad luck or a confluence of unfortunate circumstances that brought him down at a time when he seemed ready to coast to a fourth term as Governor next year, one more than his father Mario got from the voters. 

The mysteries of why Andrew had been so close with Mr. Percoco, whose slide into corruption may have been triggered by an expensive house that came with a large balloon mortgage payment, have been cleared up by the allegations made against him by former aides and spotlighted by two damning reports by outside lawyers retained by State Attorney General Tish James and the State Assembly. Besides their long history together, they share a teenager's maturity level and an accompanying sense of entitlement.  

In Mr. Cuomo's case, the worst of the bad behavior occurred early in his 60s. And so to the victims of what, coming from a teenager, might be written off as clumsiness produced by adolescent horniness was, in the word of several subordinates who accused him of harassment, "creepy."

His bullying behavior was not limited to female aides in their 20s. Nine months ago, after Assemblyman Ron Kim was among the legislators who criticized Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa to the New York Post for telling them that the administration "froze" when it decided not to supply nursing-home-death numbers to them a few months earlier out of fear that it would trigger a Justice Department investigation and help President Trump's re-election campaign, he said he got a call at home from Mr. Cuomo while bathing his children.

He told CNN that the Governor demanded that he walk back his critical comments to "cover up for Melissa" with a new statement to the media, then claimed Mr. Cuomo added, "we're in this business together and we don't cross certain lines, and he said I hadn't seen his wrath and that he can destroy me."

The Governor's longtime spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, at the time denied the Governor had threatened Mr. Kim; Mr. Cuomo claimed the "long and hostile relationship" between the two men stemmed from Mr. Kim's opposition to a 2015 bill the Governor had sought better regulating nail salons—whose owners he claimed had been major political contributors to the Queens legislator. 

Mr. Kim denied this, saying his anger toward the Governor was rooted solely in his decision in March 2020 to allow hospitals to discharge nursing-home residents who had been treated for the coronavirus once they were stabilized, believing his uncle was one of those who died of the disease as a result. The Assemblyman also said his wife had overheard Mr. Cuomo's tantrum and it left her in tears: "She feared for my future, for my life."

Everybody Hates Andrew?

The disgraced ex-Governor, playing to an increasingly small audience, used a variation on his earlier rant about the sexual-harassment probe to try to rebut the Assembly investigation, conducted by attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell.

The sex-harassment inquiry was conducted by Joon Kim, a former Acting U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, and Anne Clark, an attorney specializing in employment-discrimination cases. Mr. Cuomo has responded to their devastating findings by saying that Mr. Kim was biased against him because he had been involved in two previous probes of the Governor and his aides--the Buffalo Billion case and one arising from his prematurely ending an investigation by a special commission he had created to examine possible state corruption. Ms. Clark, he contended was pre-disposed to find discrimination because that's what she did for a living.

Given that neither of the probes conducted by Mr. Kim's then-boss, Preet Bharara, ended with charges against Mr. Cuomo, it seemed his main objection to him was that he knew enough about his way of doing business to be ready to make conclusions if the truth smacked the then-Governor in the face. As to Ms. Clark, her main sin seemed to be that she, too, tended to believe credible witnesses whom Mr. Cuomo failed to effectively contradict.

For the report released Nov. 22, the ex-Governor's lawyer, Rita Glavin, focused on that portion that covered the same territory as the one done for Ms. James, saying, "The Assembly's report simply parrots the attorney general's flawed report, failing to engage with the many errors and omissions in the A.G.'s report and her one-sided, biased investigation. 

"And like the A.G.," she continued, "the Assembly refused to provide the former governor with access to all the evidence, again denying the governor due process and a meaningful ability to respond. This is disappointing, but hardly surprising."

Stonewalled Probers

The funny thing was, lawyers from Davis Polk said that if Mr. Cuomo had any gripes about lack of due process and having no "meaningful ability to respond," he ought to look in the mirror.     

After sending requests for documents to the then-Governor in both May and June, the report stated, "Former Governor Cuomo's counsel stated that he would cooperate with these voluntary requests and indicated that a subpoena would not be necessary to obtain the requested information..."

But after more than six weeks passed following the second document request with most of the requested materials not having been provided, the Assembly Judiciary Committee July 27 served a subpoena on Mr. Cuomo. A week later, a spokesperson for the Governor reiterated his plan to cooperate.

"Nonetheless," the just-released report stated, "at no time has the former Governor meaningfully complied with the Committee's requests or cooperated with its investigation."

After Mr. Cuomo's resignation took effect Aug. 24, several top aides "declined to be voluntarily interviewed or otherwise have not made themselves available to the committee."

It's possible they figured there was no point displeasing their mercurial former boss by cooperating. There's also a chance they were wary about testifying regarding the administration's handling of the nursing-homes situation, which may ripen into a criminal case in which some of them could be implicated along with the ex-Governor.

The Assembly investigators, who focused mainly on two of Mr. Cuomo's accusersBrittany Commisso, who among other things charged he had grabbed her breast, and an unidentified State Trooper who spoke of being inappropriately touched by him while in the presence of one of her colleaguesalso heard from a 12th accuser regarding alleged sexual harassment. They concluded that portion of their inquiry saying they found "overwhelming support that the former Governor engaged in multiple instances of misconduct."

Cooking the Book

Their findings reinforced those by the two lawyers tapped by Ms. James, and dispelled any reasonable argument that the shape of her inquiry was propelled by her ambition to win the job Mr. Cuomo held when he asked her to do the investigation, clearly hoping his political help in her becoming Attorney General would work in his favor.

The real revelations in the 46-page report concern his $5.1 million book contractnot the least of them that the then-Governor saw an opportunity to cash in on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic virtually from the outset of the crisis, when he might have been expected to be too consumed with getting it under control to be thinking about how to monetize it.

"As early as March 19, 2020, a Penguin Random House employee reached out to a literary agent representing then-Governor Cuomo to see if the then-Governor was interested in writing a book," the report stated.

It's not mentioned in the report, but that was the day before Mr. Cuomo announced that effective March 22, normal business operations statewide would be placed on pause to try to get the virus under control. On March 25, he issued the directive permitting hospitals that had stabilized nursing-home residents who were treated for the virus to be returned to those homes, and a week later, in the final crush of budget negotiations, a clause was added exempting both the homes and the hospitals from liability for patient deaths that might have been caused by the discharges.

"On July 1, 2020," the report stated, "the literary agent told a PRH representative that then-Governor Cuomo had been writing a book about his experiences during the first six months of the pandemic and his actions as Governor to respond to the crisis. The literary agent represented that the then-Governor already had 70,000 words written and that the book would contain leadership lessons for times of crisis, as well as details on interactions with members of the federal government, including the White House." 

Some Inconvenient Deaths

A few days earlier, new figures from the state Health Department had emerged showing that roughly 9,800 state nursing-home residents had died from the coronavirus, a jump of roughly 3,400 from the previous figure the department had. It called into question whether the Governor's authorizing the release of stabilized hospital patients to return to those facilities had been a miscalculation. Even if that wasn't the reason, the new death-toll numbers were depressing.

If they were made public, the publishers who were about to start bidding on Mr. Cuomo's book weren't going to be quite as enthusiastic about the story of a take-charge Governor who had coined the phrase New York Tough as he might have wanted at this particular moment.

And so that number was deleted from the Department of Health report, with Ms. DeRosa one of the two ranking administration officials who reportedly were responsible. The lower figure was inserted into the report, which was released July 6 last year. That was the same date, the report pointed out, that Mr. Cuomo met with Penguin Random House officials to discuss the content of his book. 

Two days later, the manuscript went up for auction, and PRH's opening bid of $750,000 soon escalated through several rounds of bidding. Ultimately, that company prevailed, and in subsequent negotiation "guaranteed compensation of $5.2 million in royalty advances," the report stated: $3.12 million to be paid to Mr. Cuomo at the time of publication, and another $2.08 million to be disbursed in equal installments in October of this year and next October.

None of that money was conditioned on how well the book did, but a month after the deal was reached, Mr. Cuomo responded to a radio interviewer who asked if he was getting "a lot of money for it" by saying that "depends on sales."

A higher level of fibbing was mustered for a letter to the Joint Committee on Public Ethics seeking clearance for him to write the book. His Special Counsel stated that Mr. Cuomo "will write the book entirely on his own time, without the use of state resources or personnel."

Then Came the Big Lies 

It also dissembled about how the book would be promoted, saying that he would not be identified "as a State official on the cover of the book," satisfying JCOPE's stipulation that its content "must be sufficiently unrelated to the Governor's official duties so that authorship or the advice or material provided in the book cannot be viewed as part of the Governor's job." 

The lying got more serious from there, the report stated. "The evidence obtained reflects that former Governor Cuomo's senior staff assigned certain tasks to junior staff on a non-voluntary basis. Further, senior staffers themselves performed frequent work on the Book, including drafting and revising the Book in July and August 2020."

The investigators quoted a junior staffer saying that early that summer, "a senior Executive Chamber official instructed junior employees to compile materials related to then-Governor Cuomo's COVID press briefings on an urgent basis, a task that took approximately five junior employees several hours to complete." 

It went on to state that both Executive Chamber officials and members of the state's coronavirus Task Force "spent significant time working on the Book. One Task Force member explained that Book-related assignments were given in the same manner as other, state-related COVID work assignments. The Task Force member performed substantial work on the Book and did not recall ever volunteering to do so."

Among the matters one Task Force member tended to, the report said, was to help "in drafting and editing Chapter 6 of the Book, which touched on the issue of nursing homes during the pandemic...The same Task Force member also provided COVID-19 statistics for the Book and drafted sections of the Book consistent with this information."

Senior members of the Executive Chamber also took part in at least three days of editing the manuscript in late July and the beginning of August. The investigators noted drily that on the first day this editing work took place, Mr. Cuomo said during a press conference, "You cannot use government for political exploitation" and "nowhere in your oath of office does it say you can use government resources to advance political purposes."

Multi-Tasking Man

The book, "American Crisis," with the subtitle, "Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic," was published last October. The report noted that Mr. Cuomo was involved in promoting it, stating, "His contract guaranteed he would be available for ten days of media and appearances related to the Book, and at least one such appearance was scheduled during a typical workday. That is, notwithstanding the ongoing pandemic, the former Governor committed to be available for ten days to promote the book."

The investigators said they did not find evidence that moving hospital patients back to their nursing homes once they had been stabilized "increased the number of COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes." They found nothing to contradict a Health Department conclusion that it was "infected staff" who had spread the virus in those homes.

It noted that the reason for listing roughly 6,500 nursing-home deaths in the July 6 Department of Health report, rather than the higher figure approaching 10,000, was that the lower figure was the number that occurred within those facilities, and did not include those who died elsewhere.

But investigators also pointed out that "DOH officials expressed concern that the former Governor's COVID-19 response team was largely comprised of non-medical experts and felt that as a result, decisions were not always made based on scientific or medical advice...There was only one healthcare professional on the Task Force, a senior DOH official, and that senior DOH official did not have regular meetings with the former Governor during the pandemic and found it difficult to speak directly with the former Governor, as senior Executive Chamber employees guarded access to the former Governor. Moreover, the senior DOH official did not feel able to speak freely to the former Governor or senior Executive Chamber employees, as advice that was contrary to the Chamber's views was often rejected."

It was the perfect climate to ensure that Mr. Cuomo heard only what heor his enablerswanted him to hear. 

Short-Term Thinking

Which helps explain the trouble he may find himself in, beyond his shattered reputation. Is the doctoring of state records to ensure a multi-million-dollar book advance a big-enough crime to bring charges against him and possibly other members of his inner circle, including Ms. DeRosa? It's got several good elements for such a case, including falsifying government documents to help perpetrate a fraud.

It brought to mind evidence that arose in Mr. Percoco's criminal trial, which ended with his conviction in early 2018. Aides to the then-Governor testified that even when he was on leave from his state position to manage Mr. Cuomo's 2014 re-election campaign, Mr. Percoco continued regularly coming into the administration's Midtown offices, despite a ban on campaign officials doing work for the state.

When Mr. Cuomo was asked about his loyal aide's frequent appearances in the Third Ave. building, he said he hadn't been aware of them. Which seemed cute even by his standards, since Mr. Percoco's office was adjacent to his.

But maybe, if the former Governor winds up facing Federal charges, that situation could work to his advantage. He could try blaming Mr. Kim and Mr. Bharara, saying that if the multi-faceted book scam he ran to enrich himself was a violation of state ethics laws, why hadn't they called him out for looking the other way when it came to Mr. Percoco's regular transgressions?   


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