On March 19, 2020, eighteen days after New York’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, and three days before the state went into lockdown, an employee at Penguin Random House got in touch with then Governor Andrew Cuomo’s literary agent, to ask whether Cuomo might be interested in publishing a book. Cuomo, whose daily pandemic press briefings had made him a national media star—those were the early days of the “Cuomosexual”—was interested. Three and a half months later, the literary agent informed Penguin Random House that seventy thousand words had already been written for a book that would chronicle Cuomo’s experience of the first six months of the pandemic, including details of his interactions with Donald Trump’s White House. After winning a bidding war against two other publishers, Penguin Random House promised Cuomo $5.2 million in advances against royalties. During a phone call with the governor and one of his top aides, a Penguin Random House representative had stipulated that the book had to be ready for publication before the 2020 election.
Cuomo, now the former governor of New York, resigned earlier this year after an investigation overseen by the state attorney general’s office corroborated accusations that he sexually harassed members of his staff repeatedly. But the release of his book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” last October, provoked questions even before the harassment allegations emerged. Its timing was an embarrassment, for one thing, coinciding not just with the 2020 election but also with the beginning of COVID-19’s second wave. The book’s very production also undercut the premise of Cuomo’s star political turn in 2020. How can a leader simultaneously follow the science twenty-four hours a day and write a personally lucrative memoir?
The answer is he can’t. On Monday, the New York State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee released the results of an impeachment investigation into the former governor that it initiated in March, almost exactly one year to the day after Penguin Random House inquired about Cuomo’s literary ambitions. While the state attorney general’s office had looked only at the harassment claims, the Judiciary Committee’s scope was broader—encompassing the book deal, the allegation that the Cuomo administration had covered up the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state’s nursing homes, and the allegation that it had disregarded concerns about the safety of a new bridge across the Hudson River named after Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo. On all fronts, the law firm that the Judiciary Committee hired to conduct its investigation turned up potentially troubling information.
The report details how Cuomo and his office forced state employees, from junior aides to senior officials, to work on “American Crisis,” urged a state ethics board to fast-track approval of the book deal, and downplayed the amount of money the former governor stood to make from the book’s publication. According to the Judiciary Committee’s report, Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor and the second most powerful figure in his administration—named only as a “senior Executive Chamber official,” but identified by reference to a passage from the published book—wound up sending or receiving a thousand e-mails related to the project. She and other senior officials worked on the drafting and editing of the manuscript during regular working hours, nights, and weekends—including all-day meetings with Penguin Random House. One member of the governor’s COVID-19 task force told investigators that work on the book “detracted” from his work on other pandemic issues. The state ethics board’s approval of the book deal was contingent on Cuomo’s not using any state resources or personnel in its production. That requirement was clearly ignored—between the work that his staff put in and the fact that he hired a ghostwriter, it’s not clear from the report how much of “American Crisis” Cuomo himself actually wrote. According to the Judiciary Committee’s report, Penguin Random House, anticipating controversy, suggested that the book’s acknowledgments section mention only the governor’s agent and his editors. “This advice was followed,” the report notes.
The report also makes clear that the Cuomo administration’s decision to suppress data about COVID-19 nursing-home deaths was, at least in part, influenced by the book deal. On July 6, 2020, the same day that Cuomo and a senior aide had a call with Penguin Random House, the state’s Department of Health released a report on the effect of COVID-19 on New York’s nursing homes. The intent of the report was to defend an order that Cuomo had issued in March, 2020, directing nursing homes to accept patients discharged from hospitals regardless of their COVID-19 status. According to the Judiciary Committee’s findings, witnesses stated that DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, decided that the Department of Health report would reflect only those COVID-19 deaths that occurred within nursing homes rather than the figure that included people who had died after being transferred to hospitals. That edit lowered the listed nursing-home death toll from around ten thousand to sixty-five hundred. Later, when “American Crisis” was being drafted and edited, the chapter touching on the nursing-home issue was deemed “critically important” by one senior Cuomo aide.
Despite his earlier demands for due process, Cuomo provided minimal coöperation to the Judiciary Committee’s investigators, ignoring several subpoenas. “[O]n September 13, 2021, the former Governor’s counsel provided the Committee with a written submission, which included only a paragraph regarding the Book and did little to refute the evidence gathered,” the report states. In March, Crown, the subsidiary of Penguin Random House that published “American Crisis,” distanced itself from Cuomo, cancelling plans to print a paperback version of the book. Earlier this month, the state ethics board belatedly rescinded its approval of the book deal. Of the $5.1 million guaranteed for Cuomo in the deal, $3.12 million had been paid out by the time the book was published, the balance scheduled to be dispersed in equal amounts over the following two years. According to the Times, Cuomo has said he donated five hundred thousand dollars of his after-tax proceeds from the book to the United Way of New York State. “American Crisis” sold fewer than fifty thousand hardcover copies.
After Cuomo resigned, in August, it looked for a moment like legislative leaders would suspend the impeachment investigation. New York law does not appear to allow for the impeachment of former officeholders. Some in Albany thought it best to simply move on. But, after an outcry from Cuomo’s more vocal critics, the investigators were allowed to continue their work, and the report released this week is a reminder of the importance of accountability. Taken together, the scandals that brought Cuomo down are about more than any single set of accusations. They are about Cuomo’s whole approach to governance, his arrogation of power, and the culture of fear and coercion that he oversaw and personally benefitted from. Aides were instructed to work on “American Crisis” the same way Brittany Commisso, an executive assistant in Cuomo’s office, was instructed to go to the Executive Mansion on an evening in December, 2020, ostensibly to help the governor with his iPhone. After she got there, Cuomo groped her—an incident that is now the subject of a criminal investigation in Albany County. Only a few days later, Lindsey Boylan, a former state official, became the first person to publicly accuse the governor of sexual harassment. Yet Commisso kept quiet about her experience for months, in part because she saw how the governor’s office had retaliated against Boylan, leaking embarrassing internal files about her to the press. Intimidated, Commisso planned to take her story “to the grave,” the Judiciary Committee report notes.
Cuomo, even after his resignation, has continued to insist that he did nothing wrong, and has questioned the motives and trustworthiness of his accusers. He and his defenders seized on Commisso’s story, partly because the attorney general’s office had initially been unable to specify the date of the alleged groping in the Executive Mansion, and partly because of other slight discrepancies in Commisso’s story. Here again, the decision to allow the Judiciary Committee’s investigators to continue their work has proved important. Having got hold of new evidence, the investigators were able to say more definitively that the incident occurred on December 7th. As for the other discrepancies, the report states, they are of the type commonly encountered among witnesses who don’t have the benefit of a staff to help sort out their narratives. The report calls these kinds of discrepancies “the hallmarks of truth.”