ALBANY, N.Y. — When Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aide told Democratic lawmakers this week why the administration slow-walked information on nursing home deaths, she appeared to be trying to dispel smoldering rumors of a cover-up.
Instead the aide, Melissa DeRosa, threw gasoline on a fire that by Friday had enveloped Cuomo’s legacy of effective leadership during the Covid-19 crisis — something he hoped to parlay into a fourth term next year.
Republicans demanded Cuomo’s impeachment.
There were calls for his top staffers to resign.
And members of the governor’s own party — who had largely muted their criticism amid budget talks — began to turn on him, publicly and forcefully.
“They left us out in the dark every step of the way,” Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat, told POLITICO. “That’s why we’re here.”
The administration’s handling of nursing homes is now a full-blown scandal — a stunning reversal for Cuomo, whose early handling of the pandemic and high-profile daily press briefings earned him soaring approval ratings, an Emmy and a book deal.
Now, many fellow Democrats want to write an epilogue.
As Cuomo headed to Washington Friday to meet with President Joe Biden on pandemic response, at least 14 Democrats from the left flank of the state Legislature called for a repeal of the governor’s emergency powers — enacted nearly 11 months ago — that have given him nearly unilateral authority during the pandemic. And momentum appears to be growing in the Legislature to exert more oversight.
“It is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the Governor are no longer appropriate,” lawmakers said in a statement issued Friday morning.
Cuomo was already facing mounting backlash for his handling of the nursing home crisis. The Wednesday call with DeRosa was designed to repair relationships with frustrated Democrats who said Cuomo was shutting them out of the state’s response.
She told legislators the administration “froze” after the Department of Justice made an inquiry into Cuomo’s management of nursing homes. State officials refrained from releasing the data, she said, because of worry that President Donald Trump was trying to turn the tragedy “into a giant political football.”
“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 said during the meeting, according to a partial transcript.
The comments — first reported Thursday evening by the New York Post, which obtained a recording of the call — drew widespread criticism across New York on Friday and prompted an effort by Cuomo aides to reframe DeRosa’s remarks.
The Justice Department announced last August that it was considering whether to investigate if New York and other Democrat-led states violated nursing home residents’ civil rights by admitting Covid-19 patients to the facilities. Federal officials requested data from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan — which all issued contentious orders to admit medically stable Covid-19-positive patients to long-term care facilities as hospitals were overrun last spring.
While it’s unclear how many nursing homes were subject to the DOJ request — which appeared to focus only on state-run facilities — DeRosa on Friday issued a statement saying the probe trumped New York lawmakers’ requests.
“I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first,” De Rosa said in a statement issued Friday morning. “We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ.”
But top Democrats in Albany pushed back on that assertion, saying administration officials had asked for more time to compile the information but had not revealed their specific rationale.
“Other than what was reported in the news, [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry,” Heastie spokesperson Michael Whyland said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement she, too, was not pleased with how Cuomo’s office had handled legislators’ requests for information about nursing home deaths.
“Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic and our responses to it must be led by policy, not politics,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.
Senate sources say leadership is much closer to limiting the governor’s authority than they have let on publicly.
”We basically had a conference on this executive power stuff on Monday,” one source said, requesting anonymity to speak about closed-door negotiations. “Momentum was moving toward removing executive powers. The latest revelation — this almost slam dunks that.”
The Senate already signaled it may rebuke the Cuomo administration’s handling of Covid-19 in nursing homes, announcing plans to move a series of long-term care bills, including legislation to ensure that the Department of Health updates its regular reporting of nursing home and adult care facility Covid-19-related deaths to include residents who died at hospitals.
When pressed recently on his continued powers, Cuomo has been quick to remind that his authority came with a stipulation that the Legislature does have the ability to challenge any of his decisions, something the body has not attempted since approving them last March.
And it’s unclear whether the enhanced executive authority affected the state’s response to Covid-19 in nursing homes — particularly a March 25 hospital transfer policy which many critics have cited as the reason why thousands of New Yorkers died in the long-term care facilities. (Asymptomatic spread, inadequate protective equipment and lax infection control policies have also been cited as culprits.)
But the cries to rein in Cuomo emerge from months of frustration over the administration’s treatment of the nursing home deaths, legitimized by both a report from state Attorney General Letitia James and a court order that prompted the release of new numbers bumping the state’s long-term care Covid-19 death toll from about 9,000 to around 15,000, when including presumed and confirmed cases.
“It’s something that will complicate an existing political controversy, but it’s not a crime, or anything like it,” said one longtime administration official. “It’s fodder for those who want to keep the issue alive.”
Kim, a vocal critic of the governor’s nursing home response, is the Assembly Aging Committee chair and among those on the now infamous call with Cuomo administration officials. He said he understands the state’s logic but that DeRosa’s characterization doesn’t hold water.
“There was clearly an effort to not share the information, even before the Department of Justice issued that letter,” he said, adding that those questions will likely dominate a budget hearing scheduled for Feb. 25.
Kim said while he “went to bat” for the governor by supporting his request for the emergency powers, he now feels “very disappointed and kind of betrayed.”
Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who opposed giving Cuomo the emergency powers last winter, said he was not disappointed by the lack of transparency from the governor’s office, because he never expected it in the first place.
“Why would I be surprised?” he said.
Rivera said the meeting with senior staff, which he participated in, actually eased tensions between the administration and legislative Democrats — a detente that now appears to have been shattered.
“When you consider for seven months they had been stonewalling us, and then they actually sat down for what almost amounted to a three-hour meeting with some of the most senior people in the administration, that’s obviously a change in tone,” Rivera said in an interview. “That is the first of what we would hope are many conversations.”
Cuomo has not formally commented on the most recent revelations regarding his administration’s action. The governor was in Washington D.C. for a rare in-person discussion with President Joe Biden regarding the billions of dollars he and other states’ leaders are requesting to support their Covid battles.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a Friday briefing if Biden, who has touted the importance of transparency for the nation’s recovery, felt confident in Cuomo’s administration in light of the recent report.
“The president hosted Gov. Cuomo and a bipartisan group of governors and mayors to the White House today to get their perspective from the front lines, not to give anyone a stamp of approval or to seek their stamp of approval,” she said.