By MARINA VILLENEUVE
Updated: February 07, 2022 10:40 AM
Created: February 07, 2022 09:41 AM
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Good government groups say New York's ethics commission should investigate whether former Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke the law by accepting free help from a group of former aides who worked to defend him against sexual harassment allegations.
New York ethics law bans public officials from accepting gifts or services worth more than $15 from lobbyists and companies that do business with the state.
Violators can face fines of up to $25,000 or the possibility of criminal charges.
When Cuomo's first accusers came forward, he turned to a team of outside advisers - former members of his administration - who provided the Democrat with strategic advice and public relations help.
Several of those ex-aides worked for companies that lobby the state or have had state contracts.
New York's gift ban doesn't apply to family members or friends, and Cuomo's attorney, Jim McGuire, said simply seeking advice from longtime allies in a crisis breaks no law.
"Every elected official, every politician, every person has a kitchen cabinet they rely on," McGuire said. "It's called having friends."
New York Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Blair Horner said ethics officials should investigate.
"If the governor's getting free professional consulting in this capacity and he is an elected official, that should be prohibited under the law," Horner said. "They're giving free professional advice to the governor and normally they would charge."
A spokesperson for New York's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which enforces the state rule, declined to comment.
Cuomo resigned in August several days after the state's attorney general issued a report concluding he had sexually harassed 11 women.
The investigators who prepared that report interviewed several former Cuomo aides who had played a role in the governor's defense and weren't paid for their help.
They included three former Cuomo aides - Rich Bamberger, Josh Vlasto and Maggie Moran - who, at the time, worked for the public relations firm Kivvitt, which has received $26 million from state contracts and regularly lobbies the governor's office and lawmakers.
Their services included things like helping Cuomo's team develop a media strategy, interacting with reporters and disseminating documents to potentially undermine the governor's first public accuser, Lindsay Boylan.
Vlasto and Moran told investigators that as the scandal grew, Cuomo did offer to pay them. Vlasto said he declined. Moran said Kivvitt declined because the firm doesn't work "on the opposite side of victims."
"The governor tried to negotiate with me and pay Kivvit $100,000 a month," Moran testified. "He wanted Josh full-time. I said no. I told him we'd volunteer. I didn't mean it."
Moran also described the difficulty of saying no to a governor famous for demanding long hours from his staff and bearing grudges against people he felt were disloyal.
"The Cuomo family people, like they feel an obligation to serve him, when I don't think they should," said Moran, who managed Cuomo's 2018 campaign.
"It's hard to say no to him. Do you worry that you're tarnishing a decades-long relationship? Sure. Do you worry that he's going to survive the whole thing and be frustrated at those that helped him and didn't help him? Sure."
"If you're going to say no to him," Moran said, "you've got to look him dead in the eye. You've got to not quiver in your voice. If you give him any opening where he can figure out a way to charm you, or move you, or cajole you, or persuade you, he will do it," Moran said.
Kivitt spokesperson Tom Meara said "it is well documented that the firm declined to work on these issues and the former employees were not acting on behalf of the firm."
Bamberger and Vlasto declined comment when reached by The Associated Press. Moran didn't respond to messages left by phone and email. All have since left Kivvit.
Other former aides who helped Cuomo respond to the allegations include Facebook communications manager Dani Lever, who told the attorney general's investigators she had helped Cuomo on her "personal time."
Lever and Facebook, which lobbies New York officials, didn't respond to request for comment.
Ethics experts said it doesn't matter if employees were acting independently of their companies on personal time. They are still subject to the ban on gifts.
"As a lobbyist, giving your professional services without charge obviously is prohibited, in fact it's a misdemeanor, it's a crime," David Grandeau, New York's former top ethics regulator, said. "The laws are crystal clear. The problem is with the people enforcing and interpreting those laws."
New York's ethics commission has issued $136,000 in penalties for violations of the gift ban since 2017. Nearly all penalties involved companies that donated to a nonprofit company formed to promote the policy agenda of former New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, a longtime Cuomo foe.
Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny doesn't expect action from the ethics body, which numerous Democratic lawmakers and critics hope to overhaul.
"Right now, JCOPE itself is so mired in controversy and its own difficulties and likely to be replaced that we're not holding our breath," Kaehny said. "They broke the law and probably nothing will happen."
(Copyright 2022 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)