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Cuomo Aides Combat Scandals

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking March 25, 2020.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking March 25, 2020.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his staff were in damage control mode Thursday as they faced two scandals; the governor’s handling of nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic and allegations that the Democrat sexually harassed a former staffer. Cuomo’s health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, testified at a long awaited legislative budget hearing. Zucker, who had postponed his testimony, originally scheduled for three weeks ago, appeared two and a half hours late. He immediately addressed the nursing home controversy. Zucker says like all of the pandemic policies being put into place last spring, including those affecting nursing homes, decisions had to made quickly, before science made things more clear.

“Yes, there were deaths. Too many,” Zucker told the committees. “And yes, there have been questions.”

Zucker continued to defend a March 25 directive by the governor that required nursing homes take back from hospitals residents who were sick with COVID-19. Critics have said that led to more deaths.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Rob Ortt, who made a rare appearance at the budget hearing, which is usually conducted by  lower ranking committee chairs, asked why the March 25 directive was rescinded on May 10 if did not cause any harm. He pointed to a study by the government watchdog group The Empire Center, using the health department’s own data, obtained through a judge’s order that showed the directive may have led to thousands of more deaths in the homes. A report by the state’s Attorney General, Tish James, issued a similar finding.

“Both…concluded that the March 25 directive did contribute to the spread, and by extension contributed to fatalities in nursing homes,” Ortt said.   

Zucker answered that he’s sticking with the conclusion of a report he issued last July. It said nursing home staff who might not have known they were carrying the virus brought the disease into the homes.

“There was 37,000 staff who ended up having COVID, and they brought it in, inadvertently,” Zucker said. “At a time when we did not know about asymptomatic spread.” 

Zucker also faced questions, from nearly three dozen lawmakers, including Democrats like Assembly Insurance Committee Chair, Kevin Cahill. He asked about the 10 month-long delay in making public the number of sick nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals and died there. After the AG found that the Cuomo administration had undercounted the numbers by 50%, Zucker released the numbers, which confirmed the AG’s report, and showed that 15,000 nursing home residents and residents of other long-term care facilities died of the virus. Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa, in a private meeting with Democratic lawmakers, said the administration “froze” last fall when the federal Justice Department started an inquiry.

“Were you directed by the office of the governor not to prepare that response, or was that a decision that you also made in your own office?” Cahill asked.

Zucker did not directly answer the question. Later he cited as his reason a recently announced probe by the U.S. Attorney of Eastern New York. Zucker echoed statements by Cuomo, who said it was a mistake to withhold the information for so long, because it created an information “void.” But the health commissioner says he was too busy last summer and fall managing the deadly virus to compile all the numbers and make them public.  

“There was a pandemic which we continue to fight today,” said Zucker. “And there were many issues that were on my desk.”  

The health commissioner also defended a decision to grant nursing homes full legal immunity for any potential mistakes made during the pandemic, saying it’s “not true” that the homes used the law to cut corners or not provide adequate care. 

Meanwhile, a longtime associate of Cuomo, Steve Cohen, held a hastily arranged telephone news conference to attest to the governor’s handling of nursing home policy during COVID.

Cohen, a friend of the Cuomo family for over 30 years, worked for the governor when he was state Attorney General. He was Cuomo’s first Chief of Staff when Cuomo became governor over a decade ago, and is now head of Empire State Development Corporation. He says he is also consulting for the governor on the nursing home matter.

Cohen, who is now the head of the governor’s economic development agency, Empire State Development, says he’s been advising the governor on nursing home policies, and he attributes much of the controversy to politics. He traces the troubles back to the Democratic National Convention, in August of 2020, when Cuomo gave a speech critical of former President Donald Trump. He says Trump tweeted that Cuomo was a “nursing home killer,” and an inquiry from Trump’s federal Department of Justice began a few days later.  

“What I view having now come in to look at this, as the politicization of an issue that should simply be a public health issue,” Cohen said.   

Cohen also addressed the other controversy plaguing the administration, allegations of sexual harassment by former economic development aide Lindsey Boylan, who says the governor inappropriately touched and kissed her, and invited her to play strip poker during a plane ride. The governor denies the allegations.

Cohen says while Cuomo can be a difficult boss, he’s never witnessed any behaviors that crossed the line into harassment. 

“He has never shied from giving those around him, those who are working for him in his administration, accurate blunt feedback,” said Cohen. “He has his opinion, and he shares it with you. That is not for everyone.”

Boylan was an employee at Empire State Development until 2018, but Cohen says he was not there at the time and can’t comment specifically on her allegations.

Meanwhile, the TIME’S UP Foundation, created at the beginning of the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement, joined others including several Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in calling for an independent investigation of Boylan’s charges against Cuomo.

The governor has not commented since Boylan detailed her allegations in the on line platform Medium Wednesday, though he did deny any wrong doing when Boylan first alluded to her accusation in a tweet in mid-December.

Cuomo, who is president of the National Governor’s Association, introduced remarks by President Joe Biden, at the group’s annual meeting Thursday afternoon.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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