Even before his current scandals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo struggled with ethics and transparency. Since his earliest days in office, he has abused his power, undermined transparency, and skirted accountability.
At times, Cuomo’s abuses of power appear to have crossed legal lines, including when he used his campaign to promote his book about handling the coronavirus pandemic, which CREW recently filed a complaint about with the New York State Board of Elections. But Cuomo’s scandals reach far earlier than last year. The following is a brief summary of Andrew Cuomo’s checkered history on government ethics and transparency.
The Moreland Commission
Perhaps no example better encapsulates Cuomo’s unethical tendencies and abuses of power than the Moreland Commission. In 2013, midway through his first term as governor, Cuomo announced the creation of a panel of investigators tasked with rooting out corruption in New York state government—a so-called “Moreland Commission,” after the 1907 Moreland Act, the state law that grants New York’s governor the authority to convene investigative panels. Although Cuomo promised that the commission would be free to work independently, without interference from the governor’s office, that was a false promise.
Reporting from the New York Times later revealed that despite the Moreland Commission’s supposed independence, Cuomo and his associates “deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.” Larry Schwartz, a top Cuomo aide, reportedly informed the commission’s leaders that Cuomo himself was off-limits from their investigations; after the panel issued a subpoena to a media buying firm that had done work for Cuomo, Schwartz allegedly called and pressured them into withdrawing the subpoena.
Cuomo ended up disbanding the Moreland Commission prematurely in 2014, less than halfway through its promised 18-month tenure. During its brief existence, it produced a single report on public corruption in New York. The report, written by an author “handpicked by the governor’s office” over panel members’ objections, seemed to deliberately omit mentions of unethical and corrupt actions linked to Cuomo himself. After Cuomo disbanded the Moreland Commission, then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara investigated the governor’s interference with the panel. (He did not ultimately bring any charges against Cuomo.)
Cuomo’s interference with the Moreland Commission directly parallels more recent allegations of corruption against him. Larry Schwartz—the same aide who had pressured the Moreland Commission on Cuomo’s behalf—currently serves as Cuomo’s “vaccine czar.” Last month, after several accusers leveled sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, Schwartz allegedly called New York county officials to “gauge their loyalty” to the governor amid the accusations. These calls led one county executive to file notice of an ethics complaint with the state government, fearing that his county’s “vaccine supply could suffer” if he didn’t publicly support Cuomo.
Corrupt Aides and Associates
In the years following the disbandment of the Moreland Commission, several close Cuomo associates were convicted of corruption-related crimes. In 2016, former Cuomo aide Todd Howe pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges after having used his access to Cuomo’s administration to grant favors to lobbying clients. In 2018, Joe Percoco, Cuomo’s former executive deputy secretary and one of his closest advisors, was found guilty of corruption-related charges after he received more than $300,000 in bribes from executives of companies with business before the state. That same year, Alain Kaloyeros, a Cuomo associate whom the governor had appointed to manage a $1.5 billion economic package invested in the city of Buffalo, was convicted of “steering more than $850 million worth of state-funded contracts” to Cuomo allies.
Although Cuomo himself was not implicated in any of these crimes, his close association with corrupt state officials has raised questions about Cuomo’s meddling with the Moreland Commission and whether or not he truly intends to reform New York’s infamously corrupt state government.
Poor Record on Transparency and Dark Money
Cuomo’s governorship has also consistently been distinguished by a lack of transparency. During his first term, ProPublica reported that Cuomo’s aides frequently violated state public records policy by using private email accounts to conduct official business. Cuomo himself has famously refused to communicate with his staff by email, instead relying on much more difficult-to-track phone calls and BlackBerry direct messages that can remain out of reach of state archival procedures. (CREW called for an investigation into these practices after they were first reported on in 2012.) During Cuomo’s first term, state agency employees’ emails were automatically deleted after 90 days, despite these emails being public records.
At times, Cuomo’s administration has even been directly antagonistic towards transparency efforts. In 2012, when the New York Times asked the governor’s office for comment on his reported use of phone calls and BlackBerry messages to avoid creating public records, a Cuomo spokesman accused the paper of having “sunk to a new low” for objecting to “normal, standard office practices to ensure confidential information is kept confidential.” In 2015, Cuomo vetoed two bills intended to reform and improve New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), stirring backlash from good-government groups. In 2016, after his former aide Todd Howe was convicted on corruption charges, Cuomo’s administration sued to prevent emails between Howe and the governor’s office from being released to the New York Times in response to a FOIL request from the newspaper.
The release of Cuomo’s book American Crisis last year, the subject of CREW’s recent complaint against the governor, has also been mired in transparency issues. For months, Cuomo’s administration stonewalled requests from journalists and state legislators for records related to the governor’s book contract and the ethics waiver he received from the state in order to profit from book sales. Although The Buffalo News filed a FOIL request for these records last August, Cuomo’s office repeatedly put off releasing them, citing delays related to the coronavirus pandemic. (When the records were finally released last week, they revealed that New York’s state government had bypassed standard practices to approve Cuomo’s book deal—a move that one member of the state ethics commission has called “illegal and unethical.”)
Another example of Governor Cuomo’s poor record on transparency is his use of secretly-funded nonprofits to advance his policy agenda. CREW’s “Shadow Governors” report, published in 2018, highlighted two Cuomo-aligned groups that supported the governor’s agenda while remaining exempt from donor disclosure. One of these groups, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit “Committee to Save New York” (CSNY), spent millions of dollars on ads supporting Cuomo’s policies during the governor’s first term—more than any other New York state lobbying organization spent in 2011 and 2012, in fact. CSNY supported Cuomo policies seen as benefiting wealthy New Yorkers, such as a property tax cap and proposed pension cuts.
As a nonprofit exempt from disclosure requirements, CSNY refused to reveal its donors. It later came out that the group was largely funded by corporations and business interests; significantly, a gambling association gave $2 million to CSNY shortly before Cuomo announced his support for legalizing “Las Vegas-style casinos” in New York.
After CSNY and Cuomo came under fire for the group’s refusal to disclose its donors, the governor signed a state ethics law in 2013 that required lobbying groups to disclose the sources of their funds. Following the passage of this law, Cuomo distanced himself from CSNY, and he has since primarily used the Democratic Party to raise funds for his agenda.
Andrew Cuomo entered office promising to “clean up Albany.” He repeated this mantra during his first bid for reelection. But the reality of Cuomo’s engagement with government ethics and transparency issues has been much less positive. Even as the governor has touted ethics legislation and proposals, good-government groups have criticized his reform efforts as “toothless,” “meager,” and “[p]romises made and not yet kept.”
In the decade since Cuomo first became governor of New York, he has failed to deliver on promises to meaningfully reform the state’s government. Now, with attention being drawn to Cuomo’s recent scandals, it’s important to note that his history of unethical behavior in office goes back much further than these latest failures. Andrew Cuomo didn’t only recently start acting unethically—he’s been doing it all along.
Photo by Diana Robinson under a Creative Commons license.