In a move widely perceived as a reaction to a loss in confidence in Governor Cuomo in the wake of serious questions about the transfer of patients treated for the coronavirus back to their nursing homes a year ago and allegations that he sexually harassed two female subordinates as well as a woman at a wedding, state legislators voted March 5 to repeal the emergency powers he was given at the start of the pandemic.
That vote, which legislative leaders had called for three days earlier, occurred less than 24 hours after the crisis deepened for the Governor when The New York Times reported that several members of his administration, including his top aide, last June altered a state Health Department report while deleting its explosive finding that more than 9,000 state nursing-home patients had died of the coronavirus—far more than he had disclosed to that point.
That article brought new pressure and condemnation on the Governor, seeming to increase the possibility that he might have to step down.
Allowed Quicker Responses
The repealed legislation had been scheduled to expire April 30. It had given Mr. Cuomo expanded authority to take actions without the approval of the State Assembly and Senate, primarily through executive orders to provide what legislative leaders described as "a nimble response" to whatever problems arose because of the crisis caused by the virus.
Each of them said in a joint statement that the time had come to reassert their prerogatives.
But Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins dispensed with niceties March 7. After a phone call with the Governor urging him to resign met resistance, and he stated in a subsequent conference call with reporters that it would be "anti-democratic" for legislative leaders to force him out, she released a statement citing a torrent of negative news, including "allegations about sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, the loss of credibility surrounding the COVID-19 nursing home data and questions about the construction of a major infrastructure project," referring to the bridge named in memory of his father Mario.
"We need to govern without daily distraction," Ms. Stewart-Cousins continued. "For the good of the state, Governor Cuomo must resign."
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, another Democrat, didn't go quite that far but said in his own statement that "it is time for the Governor to seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York."
In mid-January, State Attorney General Letitia James released a report sharply criticizing the state's decision to compel nursing homes to readmit residents who had been stabilized at hospitals after being treated for the virus without determining whether they were still infected, a policy believed to have contributed to a spiraling death rate in nursing homes.
Two Democratic legislators who have become outspoken critics of the Governor, Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblyman Ron Kim, last month accused him of having allowed the lobbyist for hospitals statewide, the Greater New York Hospital Association, to write the language for a portion of the state budget adopted last April that granted hospitals and nursing homes immunity from liability for the death of nursing-home residents.
It had previously been reported that the GNYHA contributed $1 million to the state Democratic Party in 2018, a large portion of which went toward Mr. Cuomo's re-election campaign that year. In late February The Daily News reported based on campaign-finance records that the lobbyist and other health-care interests donated $126,000 to Mr. Cuomo's campaign accounts in the months surrounding last year's budget deal.
The outcry over the budget being partly written by a lobbyist seeking protection from civil suits arising from the pandemic was compounded after two former aides to Mr. Cuomo described being sexually harassed by him at various points beginning in 2017.
Cuomo's Initial Response
In response to the claims by his first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, Mr. Cuomo had four past and present aides contend that during a return flight from a trip to Western New York he had never suggested to her, "Let's play strip poker," as she had alleged in an article. They did not address her claim that he kissed her without her consent in his office on another occasion.
After his second accuser, Charlotte Bennett, said that he had asked her personal questions about her sex life and whether she had been involved with older men, Mr. Cuomo, who is 63, offered a kind of apology to the 25-year-old former aide but said she had mistaken light-hearted banter for a come-on. Ms. Bennett March 1 told The New York Times, which had first reported her claims, that his attempts to explain what had occurred were "not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood. They are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice."
On the same day she offered that response, another woman, Anna Ruch, told The Times that at a wedding reception 18 months ago, after she complimented him on a toast he had given to the bride and groom, he put his hand on the small of her back and, after she pushed it away, he attempted to kiss her.
Several legislators, including Senator Biaggi, have called for the Governor to resign, and a Congresswoman who was a one-time ally, former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, has also called for him to step down.
A More-Contrite Governor
After a week in which he held no media briefings, Mr. Cuomo finally addressed reporters directly March 3 at the end of his rundown of the state's progress in dealing with the coronavirus.
Prefacing his remarks by stating, "The lawyers say I shouldn't say anything when you have a pending review until that review is over," referring to the special counsel who had yet to be designated by Ms. James to examine the allegations against him, the Governor began, "I fully support a woman's right to come forward."
He then said, "I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional."
His voice beginning to break, he continued, "I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it, and frankly, I am embarrassed by it, and that's not easy to say."
He insisted, despite Ms. Boylan's claims and a photo of him cupping Ms. Ruch's face at the wedding that had appeared in The Times, "I never touched anyone inappropriately. I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable."
Direct Public Appeal
Speaking directly to viewers watching the press conference, this portion of which appeared live on several cable-TV stations, Mr. Cuomo said, "I ask the people of the state to wait for the facts from the Attorney General's report before forming an opinion."
He concluded his remarks, again with his voice cracking a bit, by saying, "I'm sorry for whatever pain I have caused anyone, and I will be the better for the experience."
The first question he was asked involved whether he would step down, at least temporarily, to allow someone else to deal with what figures to be a grueling budget negotiation later this month.
"I'm not gonna resign," the Governor said. "I work for the people of New York; they elected me." He added that he had dealt with tough budget negotiations before and did not expect he would be distracted during this one by the harassment inquiry.
He noted that Mario Cuomo also regularly showed physical affection toward people he knew.
'Never Been Ashamed'
Notwithstanding his reputation for bullying people, from members of his staff to legislators with whom he has clashed and Mayor de Blasio, Mr. Cuomo said, "I do not believe I have ever done anything in my public career that I am ashamed of."
But, he added, "I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed."
The following day, however, the bad news got worse for the Governor. First, Ms. Bennett, in an interview that aired on the CBS Evening News, said she didn't believe his apology had been sincere, and that while making remarks that she viewed as a "proposition" to have sex with him, Mr. Cuomo had pressed her on personal questions including how having been sexually assaulted had affected her.
And late that night, The Times reported that aides to the Governor had rewritten a Health Department report last June to conceal the fact that the nursing-home death count at that point was more than 9,000, far above what the state had publicly disclosed. Among the three veteran aides—one of whom had left the administration but was brought back to assist in its pandemic response—was his closest adviser, Melissa DeRosa, according to the article.
The Times reported that Health Department officials, even before the death toll was deleted, believed changes the aides sought simplified too much. "They worried it was no longer a true scientific report, but feared for their jobs if they did not go along," the story said.
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