Despite $5M book deal, Gov. Cuomo making taxpayers foot $2.5M legal defense tab

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Taxpayers are being forced to shell out more than $900 an hour for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lead defense lawyer, to help him try and fend off charges that he used staffers to help write a book detailing his handling of the pandemic and claims that he and aides hid from the public the true death toll among patients of nursing homes.

The $2.5 million deal, revealed in a contract made public through a Freedom of Information Request by The Post, was struck even though Cuomo sold the rights to his coronavirus memoir for $5.1 million and has around $17 million in his campaign war chest.

The three-term Democrat is also holding a $10,000-a-head fundraiser later this month amid an ongoing impeachment probe by the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.

But Cuomo — who leads the nation’s governors with a $225,000 annual salary — defended his decision to stick hard-working and heavily taxed New Yorkers with his legal bills.

“The state — the way it works is the Executive Chamber has retained the counsel and that is a state expense,” he said during a news conference at Manhattan’s Javits Center.

Families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center to demand that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologize for his response to the coronavirus in nursing homes.
Families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center to demand that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologize for his response to the coronavirus in nursing homes.
Yuki Iwamura/AP

“That has been [the case] in every investigation. So that’s where we are now.”

Asked if he was paying any other lawyers out of his own pocket or with campaign cash, Cuomo said, “Not at this time.”

The head of the good-government group Common Cause New York said Cuomo “should be holding fundraisers in the middle of an ongoing investigation to pay off his legal fees — not to pad his war chest.”

“As Common Cause/NY has previously recommended, politicians who are subject to civil and/or criminal investigation should refrain from paying for their defense with either tax-dollars or campaign funds, and instead set up a Legal Defense Fund,” executive director Susan Lerner said.

“That way, they can transparently raise money from willing donors.”

The contract confirms that in addition to investigating the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the feds are probing the publication of Cuomo’s memoir, which reportedly involved work by state employees.

A patient is loaded into an ambulance by emergency medical workers outside Cobble Hill Health Center.
A patient is loaded into an ambulance by emergency medical workers outside Cobble Hill Health Center.
John Minchillo/AP

The Post exclusively revealed the latter aspect last month, when state Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-The Bronx) detailed his nearly three-hour interview by FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

Vivian Zayas, who founded the “Voices for Seniors” advocacy group after her mom caught COVID-19 in a nursing home and died, called the situation a “travesty on top of a travesty.”

“The people of New York are flipping the bill for his lawyer, and for the staff to help him write his book in the middle of the pandemic —  we deserve answers,” she said.

The contract also says that the Department of Justice, as well as “other law enforcement or investigative entities” have also “made inquiries and requests for information related to…other pandemic related matters.”

The two-year deal, which runs through Feb. 15, 2023, covers the services of five partners and related personnel at the powerhouse firm of Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello.

Elkan Abramowitz appears on NBC News' "Today" show.
Elkan Abramowitz is getting paid over $900 an hour.
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

Founding partner Elkan Abramowitz, a former criminal division chief at the Manhattan US Attorney’s Office, will be paid $937.50 an hour, which the contract says represents a 25 percent discount from his normal fee.

It’s also the same amount Abramowitz charged when his firm represented Cuomo during a probe into his premature shuttering of the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in 2014.

The firm made $3.1 million representing Cuomo during that investigation, which ended in 2016 with then-Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara saying there was “insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime.”

The four other partners — three of whom are former federal prosecutors — will each be paid $680 an hour, which the contract says is a 15 percent discount from their normal fees.

The total amount of the agreement is 10 times the $250,000 allocated by the state Assembly for legal help with its impeachment probe from the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, which has four partners each being paid $600 an hour.

Last month, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Lavine (D-Long Island) described the amount as an “initial cap” and vowed that lawmakers would spend as much “as needed” on their sprawling investigation, which also involves the torrent of sexual harassment accusations against Cuomo.

Charles Lavine
Charles Lavine said the $250,000 for the impeachment probe was just an “initial cap.”
David McGlynn

Those allegations and others are also under investigation by outside lawyers hired by state Attorney General Letitia James.

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