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Zeldin says Hochul is stalling probe of controversial COVID-19 policies

state capitol building
CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
The eastern side of the New York state Capitol in Albany, NY.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s opponent in the race for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, says Hochul is stalling a review of the state’s COVID-19 policy decisions, including the deaths of thousands of nursing home residents, in order to gain political advantage. Hochul says outside consultants will examine every aspect of the pandemic but she won’t rush the process.

Zeldin, a Republican who currently holds a congressional seat representing parts of Long Island, was joined by members of the group Voices for Our Seniors, made up of relatives of people who died in nursing homes early in the pandemic. He says Hochul is deliberately delaying the investigation until after the Nov. 8 election.

“Kathy Hochul is dragging her feet because of politics, and because there’s an election coming up on Nov. 8,” Zeldin said. “In my opinion, that’s the reason why we are not seeing this advanced.”

Zeldin, a former U.S. Army officer, says after a military action, an official accounting is done to determine what lessons can be learned for use in the future. He says if he becomes governor he would immediately commence two investigations.

One would be administrative, to review policies like how the shortage of personal protective equipment and other equipment was addressed. A second probe would focus on potential criminality involving a controversial order issued by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration in the spring of 2020. It required hospitals to send COVID-19 positive patients back to nursing homes.

A report by state Attorney General Tish James found that Cuomo and his health commissioners undercounted nursing home deaths by half during that time period. An impeachment inquiry by the state Legislature investigated accusations that Cuomo covered up the true number of nursing home deaths while he produced a memoir about his leadership during the pandemic. Cuomo has denied that he was involved in a cover-up.

Zeldin says despite the controversies, Hochul -- who has been in office since last August when Cuomo resigned -- has not even begun looking at what happened.

“The governor’s office has not yet even submitted a request for a proposal to the (state) Comptroller’s office to start the bidding process to hire the independent investigators, never mind actually starting the investigation,” Zeldin said. “So this is a delay that is inexcusable.”

Zeldin says Hochul was lieutenant governor during the time when pandemic policies were made and bears some responsibility for what was done. Hochul was not part of the Cuomo administration’s inner circle, and was not involved in day-to-day decision-making.

Hochul said in May that she would soon appoint a blue-ribbon panel to look at the pandemic policies, including the nursing home deaths.

“I actually have outside consultants that will be working with us to examine every aspect of the pandemic -- the good, the bad and the ugly,” Hochul said. “Because I have to be able to leave future governors what was learned.”

A spokesman for the governor, Bryan Lesswing, says the governor has also worked to pass laws strengthening protections for nursing home residents, and invested $20 billion in the state budget for improving the health care workforce over the next several years.

The governor said in May that she would not rush the review process.

“It’s going to take some time, but I believe that history deserves to have a true record of what happened here,” Hochul said. “And I want an outside look at it.”

But she has taken no further action since. On July 11, Hochul said a request for proposals will be going out soon. The governor, who leads Zeldin in the polls and has millions of dollars more in her campaign war chest, said she is not feeling pressured to act more quickly.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.