ALBANY (TNS) — At long last, the watchdog is awake and barking. Woof!

Unfortunately, the burglar in this not-to-be-taken-literally analogy absconded long ago and by this point could be counting his loot while slurping a margarita on a Caribbean beach.

Well, what did we expect? The Joint Commission on Public Ethics was always a cowardly watchdog, especially on matters involving Andrew Cuomo. So of course the board is getting tough with the former governor now that his famed political muscle has gone to flab.

On Tuesday, JCOPE ordered Cuomo to repay the $5.1 million he received for his self-aggrandizing memoir about the pandemic. Woof!

There are problems with the move, to be sure, but let's first acknowledge a glaring truth: Cuomo should certainly repay the money received for the book, "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic." It was an act of staggering hubris that he pocketed the massive paycheck in the first place.

After all, the book was significantly written, edited and promoted by state employees working on taxpayer time. (So says a recent report from the Assembly Judiciary Committee.) We paid for much of the work, and Cuomo reaped the profit. Sweet deal, no?

But clearly an unethical one, which explains why JCOPE, perhaps embarrassed, is finally baring its teeth.

Where was the board before, you ask, when all this smashing of ethical standards was happening? It was asleep on the sofa, dreaming about chasing cats. That's where it was for the entirety of Cuomo's tenure.

Remember that a JCOPE staffer initially OK'd the book deal in the summer of 2020, and commission members raised no objections — even though the notion of governor writing a book about a pandemic during the middle of said pandemic looked tremendously sketchy from the get-go.

Where could Cuomo possibly find the time without using state resources and employees? He couldn't, it turns out, leading one staffer to complain, according to the Assembly report, that working on "American Crisis" was interfering with work on the actual crisis facing New York at the time. (That would be the pandemic, of course.)

JCOPE didn't ask questions then, but now says Cuomo pulled a fast one by breaking a promise not to use public resources. The order issued Tuesday demands he repay the money within 30 days. Woof!

Enforcement falls to the state attorney general's office, which is a bit awkward. It was Attorney General Letitia James, after all, who brought about Cuomo's downfall with devastating reports on nursing home deaths and sexual harassment allegations.

Will James, who recently bowed out of the governor's race, have as much zeal for pursuing Cuomo now that her gubernatorial dreams are dashed? Time will tell. But JCOPE seems to be handing her quite the headache.

First off, James will have to decide whether Cuomo will repay the money to the state treasury (taxpayers) or to his publisher. The answer is obvious: Taxpayers, taxpayers, taxpayers.

Honestly, a book publisher dumb enough to pay the former governor so handsomely doesn't deserve a refund, especially since a previous Cuomo memoir, "All Things Possible," proved it wasn't possible for the book to sell more than 4,000 copies. (He was paid $738,000 for that door stopper.)

A thornier question for James centers on whether JCOPE has the authority to order repayment of the money. It probably doesn't, although a court may ultimately decide. In fact, the legal battle figures to be long and costly.

Of course, if Cuomo learned anything from his long and humiliating downfall, he will hand the millions over, no lawyers necessary.

As he filled out the check, he could say he's a new man who has realized the error of his ways and embraced humility. He could say it was outrageous to have state workers toiling on a megalomaniacal book while a pandemic raged. He could admit he has no right to the money.

Oh, and he could say he's sorry.

I know, I know. I'm dreaming. If Cuomo did any of those things, we'd think he had a concussion.

And what about JCOPE, our newly awakened watchdog? Is Tuesday's order the start of a new era of tough ethics enforcement in New York? Will the commission now prowl around, sniffing at the grass and looking for malfeasance?

Perhaps. But New Yorkers can be forgiven for assuming that its members, exhausted by all this recent exertion, will again return to the sofa for another long snooze. Wake me if you spot the mailman. Woof!

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