Jan 14, 2022
An ongoing game of “he said, they said” between former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and staff who worked on his book prompted a Senate Democrat to introduce legislation late last year to stop elected officials from forcing staff to work on private business.
Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Rockville Centre, has introduced S.7613 in the Senate to prohibit public officers from using their authority to compel or coerce subordinates to use their official government work time to perform activities intended to benefit a private business or other compensated non-governmental purposes.
“The concept of superiors compelling public employees to “voluntarily” assist with outside projects or business endeavors is clearly unethical,” Kaminsky wrote in his legislative justification. “When public officials use state resources for personal gain, it is unfair to taxpayers. Current law prohibits public officers from using state property or resources for private business or other compensated non-governmental purposes, but it should also be made clear that public officials cannot exercise their power to force their employees to use their time for such purposes.”
Kaminsky’s bill was introduced three days after the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics ordered Cuomo to repay $5.1 million the former governor was paid to write “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The staff of the commission granted approval of the deal in July 2020, when his counsel told the commission Cuomo agreed to not use any state personnel or resources to produce his book and that he would write it “entirely on his own time.” But complaints later surfaced that state property, resources and personnel were used to prepare, write, edit and publish the book.
Attorney General Letitia James then told JCOPE that the committee needed to do more before ordering Cuomo repay the money, including stating what laws had been broken as well as showing documentation of discussions JCOPE had with Cuomo and his defense team. And, before James will take up the matter, JCOPE will have to show it has exhausted its options to collect the money.
Cuomo has acknowledged that state employees helped with tasks including editing the manuscript. But he’s claimed that those employees were volunteering their private time. A separate state Assembly investigation released last month found evidence that Cuomo, who resigned in August, had his staff spend large amounts of time on the book project. Junior and senior staff members told investigators they were asked to perform book tasks during their work day, including transcribing dictations, printing and delivering documents, and attending meetings with agents and publishers. One senior state official sent and received 1,000 emails about the book, the legislative report said.
“The Assembly’s recent impeachment investigation report portrayed a clear example of such exploitation. The report concluded that the former Governor utilized the time of several state employees, as well as his own, to further personal gain through the writing of his book. Members of his senior staff were also found to have done extensive work for the book, including drafting parts of the book during normal work hours and meeting with agents and publishers. The report also noted that certain tasks, which senior staff assigned to subordinate employees during official work hours, were not in fact voluntary,” Kaminsky wrote. “These actions are plainly unethical and illegal, but demonstrate that further clarity in the law is warranted. Under this legislation, there will be no question as to whether officials may exercise their authority, directly or indirectly, to compel their staff to use their work hours for another official’s private benefit. The bill will do this by making it explicit that any such acts would be a violation of Public Officer Law, prohibiting officials from using their power to make their subordinates “volunteer” for outside projects during work hours. Under this law, supervisors may not ask their subordinates to use their official time or resources of the state unrelated to the discharge of their duties for the benefit of a private business or for other compensated nongovernmental purposes.”
While Kaminsky’s legislation takes aim at Cuomo’s behavior, Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, has said legislators often do the same thing when staffers work on election campaigns or other non-government work.
“The Assembly report is hypocritical, revisionist and damns themselves as the Assembly effectively forces employees to volunteer on their political partisan campaigns as standard practice and if they want to debate it we welcome it,” Azzopardi said.
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