An Albany County Supreme Court judge has ruled the state’s newest independent ethics panel’s investigative and enforcement powers are unconstitutional, marking the latest wrinkle in a long-running court case involving former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $5 million COVID-19 book deal.
In the Monday decision, state Supreme Court Judge Thomas Marcelle determined the New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government’s (CELG) formation violates the state constitution because it was done without a constitutional amendment. Additionally, he said it “divests” Governor Kathy Hochul of her “authority.”
The ruling came as the most recent development in a years-long legal saga over the commission’s attempt to investigate Cuomo over allegations he improperly directed government staffers to work on a book about his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo brought a suit against the commission in April as he faced the prospect of having to pay back the $5 million he made off of the back, arguing the panel was so independent that it was unconstitutional.
“It is ordered that plaintiff Andrew M. Cuomo’s demand that the defendant New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government’s investigatory and enforcement authority be declared unconstitutional is granted to the extent that the court declares that Executive Law § 94 (10) and Executive Law § 94 (14) … violate and are contrary to the New York State Constitution,” the ruling, referring to the laws that established the commission, said.
The commission’s Chair Frederick Davie and Excutive Director Sanford Berland responded to the ruling in a joint statement where they said they “disagree” with the judge and are “reviewing all options, including, if appropriate, interim legislation.”
“New Yorkers have the right to an ethics commission that is truly independent and fully empowered to administer and enforce the state’s ethics and lobbying laws objectively, even-handedly, and without regard to the rank, position, or political affiliation of those we regulate and without interference from any branch of government,” they said “The Commission intends to move forward, deliberately and with zeal, to fulfill its mission to restore New Yorkers’ faith in government, even as it pursues relief from today’s ruling through the appellate and legislative processes.”
The decision is a blow to state Attorney General Letitia, who is representing CELG in the case and authored a 2021 report on allegations that Cuomo sexually harassed nearly a dozen women that led to his resignation that same year. Cuomo, for his part, is celebrating the ruling since it means he will not be required to forfeit the $5 million.
“As we’ve said all along, this was nothing more than an attack by those who abused their government positions unethically and – as the judge ruled today – unconstitutionally for political purposes,” Cuomo’s longtime spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, said in a statement.
“Those in Albany who created this farce of a commission may not care about – or know – the law, but … every time someone charged with upholding the law looks at the facts we prevail,” he added. Truth and reason won, mob rule lost today.”
Hochul formed CELG in early 2022 as a replacement to the troubled Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) that was established by Cuomo, which reportedly failed to take action in several corruption scandals involving the former governor. JCOPE was criticized for being under Cuomo’s influence.
The body, like JCOPE before it, is charged with overseeing the state’s ethics and lobbying laws as they apply to elected officials, government workers, lobbyists and their clients.
Hochul vowed to fight the decision through a statement from her spokesperson Avi Small.
“Taking office in the midst of scandal and a crisis in state government, Governor Hochul worked with the legislature to craft a new, truly independent ethics body that could begin to restore New Yorkers’ faith in their public officials,” Small said. “Today’s decision undermines the independent ethics commission created by Governor Hochul and we will work with the Commission to support an appeal.”