Newly available records shed further light on the origins of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic memoir, which won him a $5.1 million publishing contract before contributing to his political downfall.
The records reveal that his government staff were already working on the book during the deadliest phase of New York’s COVID outbreak, months earlier than previously known.
In a chain of emails between March 30 and April 18 of 2020, Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, directed staff members to produce a timeline of events and forward it to two of the governor’s speechwriters – who began converting the material into fodder for a memoir.
While the emails did not explicitly mention a book, one of the speechwriters, Jamie Malanowski, responded with a draft of what he called a “preface,” which was written as if in Cuomo’s voice and reflected on the advent of the pandemic earlier in the year.
Another speechwriter provided a “tick tock,” a condensed version of the response timeline punctuated with the numbers of cases and deaths recorded on each day. That foreshadowed the structure of Cuomo’s published memoir, in which each chapter title consisted of a date followed by tallies of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
This email exchange unfolded during the most intense period of the state’s pandemic response, when many downstate hospitals overflowed with infected patients and the death toll reached its harrowing peak of more than 1,000 per day.
Over those same three weeks, the Cuomo administration was scrambling to open temporary hospitals, recruiting volunteer health workers from around the country, scrounging for thousands of ventilators and ordering the transfer of COVID-positive patients into nursing homes – among many other urgent efforts to cope with a disaster of historic proportions.
The records also add to evidence that Cuomo improperly benefited from the use of government resources to produce the memoir. DeRosa and the other employees involved in those early exchanges were using their official email accounts, and many of the messages were time-stamped during normal work hours.
This fresh information rewrites the known timeline of the book’s creation.
According to the Assembly’s impeachment investigation, the concept of a Cuomo memoir first arose “as early as March 19,” when a publisher proposed the idea to Cuomo’s literary agent. The next book-related development documented by the Assembly came on July 1, when the agent told Penguin Random House that Cuomo was working on a memoir and had written 70,000 words. Previously, the New York Times had reported that it obtained emails and an early draft indicating that Cuomo had begun writing “as early as mid-June.”
It’s now clear that work started two and one-half months earlier in late March – bolstering the case that the project distracted state officials and possibly affected their decision-making in the middle of the crisis instead of its aftermath.
The emails from early 2020 came to light through a Freedom of Information Law request by citizen-activist Peter Arbeeny, whose father, Norman Arbeeny, died from COVID shortly after leaving a Brooklyn nursing home in April 2020. He and his brother, Daniel Arbeeny, contend their father died as a result of a Cuomo administration directive from March 2020, which compelled nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients being discharged from hospitals.
Daniel Arbeeny has filed a federal lawsuit over their father’s death against the state, Cuomo, DeRosa and former state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. (The Arbeenys have also publicly donated to the Empire Center in their father’s memory.)
Peter Arbeeny’s January 2022 FOIL request sought a range of emails and other records from the governor’s office and Health Department. The state began turning over thousands of pages of documents last fall. Included among them was the following exchange:
Just before 8 a.m. on Monday, March 30, 2020, DeRosa wrote to a group of employees in the governor’s office: “Who can do a timeline for me? Call me to discuss.”
That evening at 8:15, Victoria Raneses, an administrative assistant, sent back an 8,200-word summary of Cuomo’s pandemic-related actions, releases, briefings and media interviews dating back to early January, with links to relevant documents. It also included similar information from the states of Washington, California and Massachusetts. “Below and attached is what we have so far,” Raneses wrote. “Please let us know what you would like us to add tomorrow. Thank you!”
Raneses titled the document “Research Request (GAMC Response to COVID-19)” – using an acronym for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo – and copied her message to two of Cuomo’s speechwriters: Jamie Malanowski, a former magazine editor, writer and author, and Thomas Topousis, a former long-time reporter for the New York Post.
On Thursday, April 2, at 2:27 p.m. DeRosa followed up with a message to Malanowski and Topousis: “Have u guys had a chance to dig through this? I’ll have time tomorrow to do a brain dump.”
Topousis replied: “I looked through the material. I’ve been working to organize it a bit as something of a daily diary. I’m happy to talk tomorrow.” Malanowski added, “Yes, I am available as well.”
Two weeks later, on the morning of Saturday, April 18, Cuomo aide Stephanie Benton emailed Malanowski, Topousis and two other staffers, asking Malanowski and Topousis to “pls send me and Melissa what u have for tic toc.”
An hour later, Malanowski replied: “Tom has been pulling together the tick tock and will respond. Here is the preface I have been working on.”
He attached 1,000 words of text, written in the first person from Cuomo’s point of view. It opened with a discussion of the governor’s State of the State speech on Jan. 8, touched on his personal history, political philosophy and ambitions for the year ahead – and ended with a reference to the looming pandemic: “Meanwhile, half a world away in China, a mysterious pneumonia was afflicting people in Wuhan province.”
Topousis then sent his “draft tic toc” of almost 3,000 words. It summarized major developments in the pandemic and the state’s response from the previous Dec. 31 through mid-April. Starting on March 1 – when the state’s first known coronavirus case was reported – it included a running total of cases and deaths under each date.
In Topousis’ draft, the death toll rose from 981 on March 29 – the day before DeRosa requested the timeline – to 10,072 on April 13, the last day in his timeline.
Malanowski’s early version of the preface bears little resemblance to what was ultimately published in October 2020 as the introduction to Cuomo’s book: “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The final version did, however, retain some features of Topousis’ daily diary format – with each chapter focused on a particular date and headed with the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths recorded on that day.
“American Crisis” briefly made the New York Times’ best-seller list, but it was also fodder for scandal. Critics faulted Cuomo for capitalizing on tragedy for fame and profit, and for glossing over flaws in his decision-making and the state’s response. They also questioned how he had time to write a book in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
It later came to light that Cuomo had made extensive use of government employees and equipment to produce the memoir – in apparent violation of an agreement he had reached with the state’s now-defunct Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE.
A New York Times investigation also raised the possibility that Cuomo’s push for a lucrative book deal had motivated him to cover up the true death toll in nursing homes – including falsifying a Health Department report in early July 2020, just before he signed his $5.1 million contract with Crown publishing.
The book deal was one of the one of several scandals – including charges of sexual harassment – which prompted the Assembly to open an impeachment inquiry in March 2021, leading to Cuomo’s resignation the following August.
Cuomo and his aides have acknowledged that staff members worked on his book, but said they did so voluntarily and on their own time, which they contended was consistent with the guidelines from JCOPE.
Commission officials disagreed, charged Cuomo with violating ethics laws and sought to seize his $5.1 million fee. A court later blocked that effort on due-process grounds, ruling that the commission had failed to follow proper procedures and exceeded its authority.
The court’s decision left open the possibility of further enforcement action by the state’s successor watchdog agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.
The revelation that Cuomo and his aides were devoting time to the book in March and April of 2020 – in the thick of the state’s worst disaster in modern history – gives the commission fresh reason to reopen the case.
UPDATE: Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi is disputing this post: “What is being alleged here is reckless and false. The emails have NOTHING to do with work on the book, which began months later. The timeline was to inform the daily briefings, speeches and other COVID-related materials. Of course a speechwriter would produce language in the Governor’s voice.”