A pair of state-employed writers began researching, outlining and drafting a book about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic response in late March 2020, weeks before New York’s harrowing first wave had passed, according to newly disclosed email records.
The two speechwriters – Jamie Malanowski and Tom Topousis – traded drafts of a “preface” on March 30, brainstormed about chapter headings on March 31, requested updated research from the governor’s office in April, and interviewed the health commissioner in early May, the emails show.
On April 21, they began requesting interviews with high-ranking officials for a “narrative” or “history” of a pandemic response that was not yet over. They promised to keep the interviews short in recognition that the officials were still “extraordinarily busy” dealing with COVID.
They described themselves as working under the direction of Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, who met with the writers and sent them notes and ideas. Also in some of those meetings was Stephanie Benton, Cuomo’s director of executive affairs.
The records, which the Empire Center requested under the Freedom of Information Law, provide further documentation that work on a book about Cuomo’s pandemic response began in the thick of the crisis, when New Yorkers were dying by the hundreds per day and normal life had been suspended.
The emails also add to evidence that the memoir Cuomo later published – for which he was paid $5.1 million – was produced with extensive help from state employees and other resources.
The records provided by the Executive Chamber included no messages from Cuomo himself, who was known to avoid communicating by email. However, it seems unlikely that DeRosa and Benton would have pursued a project like this without Cuomo’s knowledge or approval.
Cuomo’s memoir – “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic” – was briefly a best-seller after its publication in October 2020. It later became a subject of scandal when the New York Times reported that it was written with the use of state personnel and equipment, something Cuomo had committed not to do in an agreement with the now-defunct Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. The Times story also suggested that Cuomo had withheld the true death toll in nursing homes in order to enhance his book fee.
After Cuomo’s resignation in August 2021, the commission revoked Cuomo’s authorization to write the book and ordered him to forfeit his $5.1 million fee. Although Cuomo blocked that move in court, the successor watchdog agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, has kept the issue alive and scheduled a hearing on June 12.
According to a 2022 report commissioned by JCOPE, an editor from Penguin Random House initially floated the idea of a pandemic memoir to Cuomo’s literary agent on March 19. The report found that Cuomo had begun writing his book with help from his government staff by early June 2020, and had reportedly generated a 70,000-word manuscript by July 1.
Internal emails later obtained by activist Peter Arbeeny indicated that preparatory work on the book actually started more than two months earlier, in late March.
The additional records recently obtained by the Empire Center add new details to the picture. They clarify that the effort was overseen by DeRosa and that it was treated as urgent enough to command the attention of high-ranking officials, such as former Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, in the thick of the crisis response.
The first mention of the book in the email records came on Monday, March 30, a week after Cuomo had ordered a shutdown of all non-essential businesses statewide. Also on that day, the Navy hospital ship U.S.S. Comfort arrived to help the city cope with an expected flood of critically ill patients.
That morning, DeRosa asked research staff in the governor’s office to compile a timeline of pandemic-related events and held a conference call with Malanowski and Topousis.
After the call, Malanowski contacted a member of the research staff, Victoria Raneses: “Tom Topousis and I just [had] a talk with Melissa about the coronavirus project,” he wrote. “Perhaps the three of us could have a talk this morning, just to make sure we are on the same page.”
The nature of the “coronavirus project” emerged in a message that afternoon, when Malanowski sent Topousis a draft of a “preface.” Written in Cuomo’s voice, it opened with the governor’s State of the State speech in January 2020 and ended with news of a virus emerging in China. Topousis suggested some editing changes, including making the last sentence “more ominous.”
The next day, March 31, Topousis wrote that he was organizing transcripts of the governor’s briefings into “something of a daily diary” – foreshadowing the ultimate structure of “American Crisis,” in which each day from March 1 to June 19, 2020, is its own chapter.
Also on March 31, Malanowski sketched a proposed outline for what he referred to as “the book.”
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but it seems that it might be beneficial for us to think of this story as unfolding in chapters, or perhaps more accurately sections, built around crises, and what actions we took to deal with them. We have already been through a period of growing awareness, a testing crisis, and a hotspot crisis. Each of these can be the tentpole that holds up a chapter (I don’t want to get hung up on terminology–once we get going, we might decide that something we’re calling a chapter might literally become 2 or three chapters of the book.) I think this approach would be useful, because once we get a sufficient amount of info from published stories and interviews, we can write a draft of that section.
He proposed sections called “Growing Awareness,” “Testing,” “Implementing Testing,” and “New Rochelle,” the latter being the site of an early confirmed outbreak. His working title for the fifth section was “The Next Chapter?” – the question mark serving as a reminder of how early this was in the first wave:
Not sure of the arc of this chapter yet, because we are still in the middle of it. And I’m not sure if it is more than one chapter. … It’s an old-fashioned horror/thriller movie, right? As soon as we escape [one] threat, we’re on to the next one.
On April 1, DeRosa checked in with the two writers. “[H]ave u guys had a chance to dig through this?” she wrote. “I’ll have time tomorrow to try to do a brain dump.” They agreed to meet the next day.
Two weeks later, on April 18, Benton organized two conference calls involving her, DeRosa, Malanowski and Topousis. After the first, she asked Topousis to share the “tic toc” or timeline he had been preparing. Malanowski also sent Benton and DeRosa the preface he had previously shared with Topousis.
After a second meeting that afternoon, Topousis sent Malanowski a file called “MDR and SB notes,” apparently referring to DeRosa and Benton. The notes recounted events in late February and early March, when the governor obtained special emergency authority from the Legislature and the state confirmed its first COVID case.
Records from mid-April also show that the two writers sought updated information from the research staff and met with and gathered anecdotes from DeRosa and Benton.
In an April 21 email with the subject line “real time notes” – apparently sent during a flight with Cuomo to Buffalo – DeRosa summarized a phone conversation she had just had with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Cuomo was heading to the White House later that day, and she had wanted to avoid a joint appearance between him and the president.
“Fine”, I said, “but what are we talking about? A quick huddle in the oval office and then the gov heads out?”
“Well,” Jared said, “you know, Melissa, the president is his own campaign manager, he’s his own scheduler, he’s his own press secretary – who knows what he could have up his sleeve, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled the governor into the briefing room with him to talk to the press together.”
There it was. My fear realized. This was a set up the entire time. I paused “Um, ok Jared, I’ll get back to you.”
On April 23, Topousis summarized the project he was working on in a message with special counsel Beth Garvey, with whom he was seeking an interview.
I’m working with Jamie Malanowski on a long-term project under Melissa’s direction. As part of the project, Melissa has asked us to put together a history of the Executive Chamber’s response to the pandemic. It will eventually be turned into a narrative, but will require talking to senior staff closely involved with the governor. For now, we are focused on the early stages.
Melissa mentioned a meeting that you attended along with [Budget Director Robert] Mujica and the boss as the threat was unfolding – must have been late February. I know you must be crazy busy at the moment, but at some point it would be really helpful if you could spare a few minutes to chat with Jamie and myself about that meeting. We’ll keep it as short as possible.
Malanowski gave a more detailed explanation in an April 28 email addressed to Health Department speechwriter Barbara Sutton, who was helping him arrange an interview with Zucker.
We are hoping to produce a narrative that [is] not a history of the State’s response to the crisis per se, but that is about decision-making, leadership and the goals and values of government as demonstrated in New York State during this crisis. Therefore, at any given moment during the crisis, we want to know what information the governor had, what he was thinking and feeling, and how he acted on the information at hand.
Obviously Dr. Zucker and everyone else in the government is still absorbed in fighting this disease. We’re thinking the best approach [is to divide] the coronavirus experience into several periods, and see if we could talk to Dr. Zucker for 20-30 minutes about one period at a time.
In response to the Empire Center’s previous post on this topic, a spokesman for Cuomo said the emails from the governor’s office from March and April 2020 had “nothing to do with work on the book, which began months later.”
Given the additional correspondence now available – which specifically references a “book” in “daily diary” format, which was meant to be a “narrative” or “history” of the pandemic response, focused on “what information the governor had, what he was thinking and feeling and how he acted on the information at hand” – the former governor’s blanket denial is increasingly hard to credit.