THROWING THE BOOK AT HIM: Governor Cuomo found himself under siege after The New York Times reported that he was working on his memoir on handling the coronavirus pandemic at the same time that top aides deleted a passage from a Health Department report stating that the death toll among nursing-home residents was more than 50 percent higher than the figure used by his administration. The article also stated he had been given an advance of more than $4 million for the book, provoking additional outrage from critics.

Less than a week after a poll indicated that Governor Cuomo had stemmed the bleeding as he fought off calls for his resignation over both allegations by past and present female aides of sexual harassment and evidence that his administration concealed politically damaging nursing-home death data, his secretiveness punched him in the nose again.

The New York Times reported March 31 that Mr. Cuomo's book advance for a memoir detailing his handling of the coronavirus crisis in New York had exceeded $4 million, and that he had begun working on the book weeks sooner than he originally indicated.

Report Staff Helped on Prep

The paper also reported that his subordinates helped prepare and correct the manuscript, and while a spokesman for the Governor, Rich Azzopardi, said two of his top aides had volunteered their assistance, he sidestepped a question about whether junior staffers were drafted for service on the project, saying that any work they may have done was "incidental." 

Particularly damaging about the timeline laid out in the Times story was that it indicated the memoir was already well underway by the time one of the two "volunteers," Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, reportedly made the decision to delete a sentence in a state Health Department study that showed the death toll among nursing-home residents was more than 50 percent higher than the administration had maintained. 

On June 27, the day Ms. DeRosa arranged a teleconference with several key Cuomo staffers to discuss the draft of the Health Department report, The Times found that Stephanie Benton, who some Albany officials have referred to as the Governor's gate-keeper, asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, which would be called "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic," and deliver them to the Governor's Mansion for him to read. 

The article stated that on July 5, a Sunday, Ms. Benton asked a female staffer to print out a 224-page draft filled with Ms. DeRosa's edits to the manuscript and drop it at the Mansion.

Not Her Only Edits

The following day, the Health Department report was publicly released. It, too, bore Ms. DeRosa's imprint as one of three staffers who edited and excised key portions of the draft.

According to The Times, two earlier drafts of the report stated in its second sentence that "from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19."

Those drafts were written by Eleanor Adams, whom the article identified as a state epidemiologist, and Jim Malatras, a former ranking aide to the Governor who had become Chancellor of the State University of New York.

But the report that was ultimately issued after final editing by Ms. DeRosa and another top aide to the Governor, Linda Lacewell, put the nursing-home death toll at 6,432. The lower figure did not include those residents who died in hospitals while being treated for the coronavirus. Mr. Cuomo has come under fire for a directive issued by the Health Department last March 25 stating that any nursing-home patients who had been stabilized in hospitals after being treated for the virus were to return to the homes, which critics say contributed to the unusually high death toll in those homes.

Cuomo's Explanation

Mr. Azzopardi told The Times that the July 6 report was meant to focus on whether the Governor's policies had "contributed to increased deaths, and not [to] be a full accounting" of all those residents who passed away. 

While many leading state Democrats who have called for Mr. Cuomo's resignation, primarily because of the sexual-harassment allegations against him, did not weigh in on the latest controversy, Mayor de Blasio April 1 was unsparing in his criticism, saying the Times story showed "a clear, consistent pattern of corruption. The Governor wanted to personally profit and politically profit from his book deal. He covered up the truth about the nursing-home scandal, and his team covered up the truth to benefit him financially and politically."

He added that the article showed Mr. Cuomo "inappropriately used government staff to further his own personal aims," and reiterated his call for his longtime antagonist to resign.

The heads of the state Republican and Conservative parties were even harsher in their assessments.

Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy said in a statement, "The lid is finally blown off Cuomo's entire corrupt, disgusting book deal that we knew didn't smell right from the very beginning. He has broken numerous laws, lied with impunity, and personally profited more than $4 million on the coffins of 15,000 New Yorkers."

That last figure includes the number of residents of assisted-living and other group homes statewide who perished from the virus.

'Buried Inconvenient Facts'

His Conservative Party counterpart, Gerard Kassar, said, "It's not Mr. Cuomo's greed for power that we're learning about now, it's his greed for cold-hard-cash at the expense of the very people who elected him...Governor Cuomo, using state employees, appears to have buried inconvenient facts about nursing-home deaths to publish a book and become a wealthy man."

And the New York Post reported that a government-watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections seeking an investigation into whether Mr. Cuomo's re-election campaign spent money to promote the book when it was published last October.

"The law is clear that you cannot spend campaign funds for your own personal benefit," the group's president, Noah Bookbinder, told the Post. "Governor Cuomo has operated in several spheres as though rules don't apply to him."

The huge advance from Crown Publishing Group was inspired by the national attention and admiration that the Governor's cool, informative briefings on the state's efforts to deal with the coronavirus beginning last March had attracted. The book quickly became a New York Times best-seller, in contrast to a 2014 memoir, "All Things Possible," that failed to come close to recouping the nearly $800,000 advance he received.

But sales have stalled at 48,000, according to The Times, and the embarrassing revelations about the nursing-home mistakes and cover-ups led the publisher a month ago to stop promoting the book while a U.S. Justice Department investigation into possible withholding of accurate data on deaths was carried out. Crown has also canceled plans for a paperback edition, and its chances of recouping its large advance have plummeted dramatically.

More Trouble to Come?

A Morning Consult poll of 3,000 voters released six days before the story in The Times showed Mr. Cuomo's approval rating at 53 percent, which while down by a double-digit margin since the start of the year was an improvement on his recent standing in other polls, which had dipped as low as 43 percent.    

But while he has insisted he will not resign, polls that have shown that a slight majority of voters don't believe he should have to step down also indicate a larger percentage of them don't want him to run for a fourth term next year.

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