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Report of possible cover-up on NYS nursing home deaths provokes calls for probes of Cuomo, aides

New York State Capitol building at night, Albany NY
The New York state Capitol building at night, in Albany, NY.

New York political leaders on both sides of the aisle are calling for actions, including a criminal investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top aides and an end to the governor’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outcry follows a New York Post report that the governor’s chief of staff said during a private meeting that the administration deliberately withheld key data on nursing home deaths during the pandemic.

The newspaper published comments from a private video conference call between top Cuomo officials and several Democratic lawmakers, including the chairs of the Assembly and Senate health and investigations committees. The meeting was called to discuss the lawmakers’ frustrations over the Cuomo administration’s months-long withholding of key data on the over 15,000 deaths at nursing homes and other adult care facilities during the pandemic so far.

The meeting was secretly recorded and then leaked to the paper. The Post reported that during the gathering, Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, told them they delayed releasing the numbers to lawmakers and to the public because they feared political repercussions from a potential Trump administration Department of Justice probe.

“We froze,” DeRosa said, according to the paper, which also reported that she apologized to the lawmakers for putting them in an awkward political position.

Leading Republicans immediately called for the governor’s resignation or impeachment. Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said the state’s attorney general and President Joe Biden administration’s justice department should begin independent investigations.

“I’ve never felt such outrage with the governor,” Ortt said.

Ortt said it’s more than just a political scandal. He said it raises questions of whether Cuomo aides obstructed a federal inquiry by delaying the release of key data.

“This administration, if what was reported last night is true, deliberately covered up important information, withholding it not only from the public and members of the Legislature, but also from the federal government and federal investigators,” Ortt said. “And they did so for expressly political purposes.”

The administration recently released new details on the nursing home deaths after a report by Attorney General Tish James found that the governor’s health department had undercounted the deaths by 50%. Hours later, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker released numbers that for the first time revealed the number of nursing home residents who had died after being sent to the hospital. It largely confirmed the attorney general’s report.

Sen. Sue Serino, ranking minority member on the Senate Aging Committee, said she personally fielded calls from constituents whose family members were in nursing homes during the pandemic. She said they were not allowed to visit and were kept in the dark about their loved ones’ condition.

“I had people crying on the phone,” Serino said. “It was heartbreaking. I had sleepless nights over it.”

Serino said the Post report also raises questions about the conduct of the Democratic lawmakers who attended the private meeting. After the meeting, in a statement, the lawmakers said the meeting was “productive,” but they did not make any mention of DeRosa’s specific comments.

Serino would like the Senate Ethics Committee to look at the Democrats’ conduct, and she suggested that the committee chairs at the meeting should perhaps step down temporarily while an investigation is conducted.

“They have a lot to answer for,” Serino said.

The Democratic lawmakers did make public a 16-page memo that Zucker gave them that released some new details, but that largely restated previous claims that many nursing home deaths were caused by asymptomatic staff members who brought the disease into the homes.

Senate Aging Committee Chair Rachel May, in an interview with public radio station WRVO, said she did not want to comment on the Post report, which quoted her as complaining to Cuomo officials that their secrecy was politically damaging to her during a reelection campaign.

May said she’d rather focus on action the Senate took on a number of bills to try to improve transparency in the state’s nursing home policies, including a requirement that the health department conduct better inspections of the homes, and to publish deaths from infections in real time.

“It’s frustrating to me because all the attention is on the noise and not on the action that we’ve been taking,” May said.

Several Democrats, though, are joining the Republicans and calling for more action. Freshmen senators Samra Brouk, Jeremy Cooney and John Mannion want the Legislature to conduct public hearings with witnesses under oath.

On Friday, DeRosa released a partial transcript of the meeting with the Democratic lawmakers, and she clarified the context of the remarks.

In a statement, she said she explained to the lawmakers that when the administration received the Department of Justice inquiry in late August, they had to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request for the information.  She said Cuomo staff told both houses of the Legislature at that time about the probe.

After that, she said they were focused on dealing with the second wave of the virus over the holidays, and then the vaccine rollout. And she promised to be more forthcoming in the future.

“As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked,” DeRosa said. “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."

DeRosa’s statement drew a denial by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who said in a statement that other than seeing news reports, “the Speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry.”

Republicans and some Democrats also want to rescind Cuomo’s emergency powers granted by the Legislature at the start of the pandemic last March. Under those powers, the governor has nearly unilateral authority to make major decisions on opening and closing the economy and who can get vaccinated.

Ortt would like Democrats to hold a special session to end those powers.

“I don’t know what else they could possibly need to have to rescind the governor’s emergency powers after last night’s report,” Ortt said.

The GOP senators have the support of at least 14 Democratic senators, including those called to the private meeting. They issued a statement saying they also want to see the governor’s emergency powers come to an end.

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