The true measure of government transparency is the degree to which the law protects the most powerful.
Here in New York, the law bends over backwards for the government and against the people. That fact is no more evident than in the media’s efforts to obtain details about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s book deal.
The governor’s office is refusing to release public records relating to Cuomo’s financial deal for his book, “American Crisis,” spotlighting his management of the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor is set to make more than $5 million off the book.
The premise of the book is a lesson in how to manage a crisis, even as the governor continues to come under fire for misleading the public about the number of covid deaths related to nursing homes and even as state officials are investigating his use of taxpayer-funded staff to do some of the research and editing for the book.
The Albany Times Union filed three Freedom of Information Law requests for such information as times sheets for the government workers who allegedly worked on the book, records that Cuomo provided to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) seeking approval to publish the book, and copies of investigative letters Cuomo might have been sent in recent weeks, the newspaper reported.
The requests were denied under two provisions of the Freedom of Information Law that we’ve criticized often in the past and which again demonstrate why these anti-citizen loopholes need to be closed.
The first reason given for denying the records was that records by state ethics panels are secret. The other was that the records were compiled for law enforcement purposes.
Regarding the first excuse, the Cuomo administration is selective in what it releases from ethics panels, as it has released such information in the past.
Regarding the second, the records weren’t collected for law enforcement purposes, and the records sought weren’t even sought from any law enforcement agency that’s conducting an investigation.
Both denials exploit loopholes in the state FOIL law that have long been used to hide malfeasance and wrongdoing.
And even if you believe these are legitimate reasons for keeping these records secret, which they’re not, there is no requirement that the governor’s office withhold them. Unless specifically prohibited from disclosure, the governor’s office is free to release the documents if it wants.
If the governor did nothing wrong, he should be anxious to release the records.
Laws that protect public officials from scrutiny and which favor the interests of the powerful over the interests of the citizens are laws that need to be changed.
This situation is not new.
And it’s no longer tolerable.