A top counsel in Attorney General Letitia James' office in a letter Thursday raised doubts over whether money former Gov. Andrew Cuomo earned for his memoir about the COVID-19 pandemic can be clawed back after he was ordered to do so this week by state ethics commissioners.
The letter from James' Counsel Larry Schimmel to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics raises procedural and statutory issues with the order to turn over the money Cuomo received for "American Crisis."
The letter was first reported Thursday evening by the Times Union.
The book, part of a $5.1 million contract, has come under scrutiny for Cuomo's use of government resources to help him write it in 2020. A state Assembly report found Cuomo used substantial state resources in the writing of the book. And, contrary to the claims of the former governor, aides who worked on the book did not feel like they were volunteering their time.
Cuomo's use of government resources is now the subject of multiple investigations by James' office as well as the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.
But the effort by ethics officials to have Cuomo turn over the money is running into several hurdles.
In the letter, Schimmel pointed to the need for the ethics commission to have a substantial basis investigation report before referring recovery matters to the attorney general. At the same time, Schimmel wrote agencies must show it has exhausted "its own collection activity" before turning it over to the attorney general's civil recovery unit.
And the letter raises legal questions over whether the book's proceeds could be turned over to the attorney general's office.
"There does not appear to be the statutory authority to order payment directly to the attorney general or for the attorney general to determine the recipients of such payments," Schimmel wrote.
Cuomo attorney Jim McGuire in a statement blasted the commission's order. He previously this week pledged a court challenge if state officials move forward with trying to claw back the money.
“JCOPE’s actions violated fundamental constitutional rights and flagrantly exceeded its statutory authority," he said. "It is not at all surprising that the lawlessness of JCOPE’s latest unlawful action is being recognized as just that. We remain ready to vindicate the Governor before a politically neutral body, our courts.”
Cuomo previously reported this year earning $1.5 million after taxes. He put $1 million into a trust fund for his daughters and donated the rest to charity.
The commission's order this week gave him 30 days to turn the money over to James' office.