ALBANY, N.Y. – The top aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged pausing the release of data on COVID-19 in nursing homes because the governor’s administration feared it could be “used against us” by the Department of Justice under then-President Donald Trump.
Now, a growing number of lawmakers of both parties are accusing Cuomo of withholding key data and calling on the Legislature to strip him of his emergency powers, which have allowed him to unilaterally impose sweeping rules and restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa’s comments came in a private Zoom call Wednesday with a number of Democratic lawmakers, who in August had requested additional data about the coronavirus death toll in nursing homes and answers to questions about the state’s handling of the virus.
DeRosa acknowledged asking legislative leaders in September whether the Cuomo administration could “pause” the collection and release of the information requested by lawmakers after the Department of Justice inquired about the state’s coronavirus response.
On Friday, Cuomo’s administration released a partial transcript of the call, hours after The New York Post first reported on a leaked audio recording.
“Basically, we froze because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys and what we start saying was going to be used against us and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa told the lawmakers.
“That played a very large role into this,” she said.
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In a statement Friday morning, DeRosa said she was merely explaining that when the state received the federal inquiry, “we needed to temporarily set aside the legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first.”
She added that the state was “comprehensive and transparent in our responses” to the Justice Department and then “had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout.”
“As I said on a call with legislators,” she added Friday, “we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”
Nursing home deaths draw new scrutiny in New York
News of the private call came as Cuomo, a Democrat, had already been facing criticism for failing to report the number of nursing home residents who died from the virus after being transferred to hospitals until Jan. 28, when the Department of Health released an estimate hours after state Attorney General Letitia James issued a report faulting the state for withholding the number.
The Legislature’s formal request to the Cuomo administration in August included at least 17 questions about the state’s coronavirus response, including details about the cost. A key request was a full accounting of the number of New York nursing home residents who had died.
The Department of Health finally responded in writing on Wednesday.
DeRosa’s comments drew outrage from Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers, who pointed to the remarks as proof that the Cuomo administration had been covering up key information, including the nursing home death toll.
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More than 13,000 New York nursing home residents have died of COVID-19, either in the home itself or in a hospital. The number comes to 15,000 when other long-term care facilities are included.
The comments on the call drew a wave of rebukes from Republicans, who for months have been calling on the Legislature to rescind Cuomo’s emergency powers. DeRosa’s comments spurred a number of Democrats to join the call Friday.
Republicans also have called on their Democratic colleagues, who control a majority in the state Senate and Assembly, to issue subpoenas to Cuomo’s office and the Department of Health for more information.
In a statement Thursday, state Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, Niagara County, called for a “top to bottom” investigation of Cuomo and his administration.
“This is clearly a gross obstruction of justice,” Ortt said.
“Instead of apologizing or providing answers to the thousands of New York families who lost loved ones, the governor’s administration made apologies to politicians behind closed doors for the ‘political inconvenience’ this scandal has caused them.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo:Sending COVID patients to nursing homes not a mistake
On Friday, 14 Senate Democrats signed onto a joint statement calling on the Legislature to rescind Cuomo’s emergency powers, including Sens. Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx, Jeremy Cooney and Samra Brouk of Rochester, and Elijah Reichlin-Melnick and James Skoufis of the Hudson Valley.
Brouk called Cuomo’s handling of nursing home data “unacceptable.”
“The emergency powers that had been granted to the governor to manage this pandemic are no longer needed and must be reevaluated immediately,” Brouk said. “The Legislature must act to reestablish proper legislative oversight of the governor’s actions and deliver honest, open leadership to our state.”
Cuomo administration asked for ‘pause’ on nursing home data
DeRosa comments on the call came in response to a question from Skoufis, an Orange County Democrat who questioned why it took so long for the Cuomo administration to fulfil the Legislature’s request.
After accusing Trump of making the nursing home situation a “political football,” she pointed to the Justice Department inquiry, which came Aug. 26 and requested information about fatalities in nursing homes.
The next month, DeRosa said Cuomo’s administration asked for permission to put a “pause on getting back to everybody until we get through this period and we know what’s what with the DOJ.”
Then came a second wave of coronavirus cases in the fall and winter and a massive vaccination rollout, she said.
“I’m just asking for a little bit of appreciation of the context,” DeRosa said, according to the transcript.
DeRosa apologized for putting the lawmakers in a difficult political position. She said she believes the Justice Department never launched a formal investigation and the matter is now dropped.
“We do apologize,” she said. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intent to put you in that political position with the Republicans.”
Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the Health Facilities Association representing many nursing homes across New York state, disputed some of DeRosa’s statements in the transcript that asserted nursing homes misinterpreted data-reporting requests from the Department of Health in April and contributed to the situation.
“The Department of Health and the state set the methodology,” Hanse said Friday. “We were just told what to do and we had to report it, and that really is on the state whether or not they had the capacity to compile and analyze the data.”
According to the transcript, DeRosa said health officials sent out a request April 17 for nursing homes to “tell us anyone that died in the facility, anyone you think died of COVID in the facility” in connection to attempts to count presumed fatalities.
“And the nursing homes took that to mean I’m going to look backward and guess, essentially, that you believe was confirmed COVID in a hospital and that you think was presumed in a hospital,” she said, later adding “none of the (data) was reliable” and state health officials had to parse the data dump while still battling COVID-19 during the pandemic peak.
What happens next with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
Whether the Legislature ultimately will take any action against Cuomo will depend on closed-door talks among the Senate and Assembly’s Democratic majorities.
On Friday, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said Cuomo’s office “communicated to (Assembly) staff that they needed more time to provide the information” lawmakers had been seeking.
“Other than what was reported in the news, the Speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry,” Whyland said.
In a statement Friday, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said crucial information “should never be withheld from entities that are empowered to pursue oversight.”
“Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic, and our responses to it must be led by policy, not politics,” she said. “As always, we will be discussing next steps as a conference.”
Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, had said lawmakers should consider rescinding that authority, a call that gained support Thursday and Friday.
Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, called DeRosa’s reported comments a “betrayal of the public trust.”
“There needs to be full accountability for what happened, and the Legislature needs to reconsider its broad grant of emergency powers to the governor,” Gounardes tweeted.
Under state law, the Legislature can rescind any of Cuomo’s emergency orders with a majority vote. Since the start of the pandemic, that hasn’t happened.
Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for an independent inquiry into the state’s handling of the pandemic.
“A full, independent investigation into the state’s handling of the COVID crisis in New York’s nursing homes needs to be launched immediately, and any lawmaker who is not actively working to make that happen is complicit in the cover-up – period,” said Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, Dutchess County.
State GOP chairman Nick Langworthy went a step further in a statement: He said impeachment should be on the table.
“Andrew Cuomo has abused his power and destroyed the trust placed in the office of governor,” Langworthy said. “Prosecution and impeachment discussions must begin right away.”
Contributing: David Robinson, New York State team
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.
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