When Governor Cuomo last October published a memoir about his work in getting the coronavirus under control, "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic," the primary criticism of the book was that it took a certain hubris to be celebrating his efforts when, rather than the disease having been conquered, there were expectations that a second wave was approaching.
There was another concern that got a bit less attention—the thousands of deaths inside nursing homes after the state Health Department last March 25 issued a directive requiring that nursing-home residents who had been sent to hospitals in the state for treatment of the coronavirus be returned to those homes once they could be safely discharged. But that, too, offered a reason to wonder about the Governor's decision to rush out a book that amounted to a victory lap.
That was particularly true because there were suspicions that Mr. Cuomo—who had gotten accolades for his daily briefings on the state's efforts to deal with the virus because, in sharp contrast with President Trump's press conferences that lacked facts while downplaying the disease and proposing quack cures, he was offering hard truths that seemed rooted in science rather than politics—had an ulterior motive for wanting that order issued.
A Favor for Big Contributor?
It was spelled out in a letter to this newspaper published a week after Mr. Cuomo's book came out. Usher Piller, the chief steward of Division 191 of the Public Employees Federation, who had gained a reputation for exposing wrongdoing on the Governor's watch, claimed in that letter that "the impetus for the tragic directive to nursing homes came from the Greater New York Hospital Association."
The GNYHA, the lobbying arm for hospitals in the state, had in 2018, Mr. Piller wrote, "at Cuomo's behest—donated $1,000,000 to the state Democratic Party and then lobbied successfully for increased Medicaid reimbursements."
Not incidentally, that year was when the Governor used an overstuffed campaign warchest to fend off challenges in the Democratic primary by Cynthia Nixon and then in the general election by Republican Marc Molinaro, with his money advantage playing an even bigger role than his greater name recognition among state voters.
Mr. Piller's letter continued, "As the pandemic took hold, the hospital group was eager to rid itself of coronavirus patients in order to free up space for patients seeking elective procedures, something far more lucrative for the hospitals. They pushed hard for this death shuffle and succeeded."
During the Feb. 15 press conference in which he tried to dig out of a hole he and his top aide had dug with months of evasion regarding the death toll in nursing homes, Mr. Cuomo claimed there had been "much distortion" about that March 25 executive order requiring nursing homes to take back residents who had been discharged from hospitals.
He said that at the time the Health Department issued the memo recommending the return, based on guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state assumed that "residents leaving hospitals were likely not contagious."
Cites Elmhurst 'Collapse'
The belief was, the Governor said, that keeping the nursing-home residents in hospitals increased the risk of "secondary infections," adding, "March 25 was the day after Elmhurst Hospital collapsed." He was referring to that Queens facility having suffered 13 coronavirus deaths in a 24-hour period, which became national news because it showed how deadly the disease was.
The key part of the Health Department directive, Mr. Piller noted in his letter, stated, "No patient shall be denied readmission or admission to the NH solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission."
Mr. Piller in a Feb. 17 phone interview scoffed at the suggestion that the deaths at Elmhurst—which was short on staff to handle an excess of patients—were the basis for a policy that applied statewide.
"There were many hospitals that were not at capacity or near capacity where he could have sent patients," he said.
Mr. Cuomo contended that the heat he was suddenly facing, after State Attorney General Letitia James's report a month ago accusing his administration of significantly undercounting nursing-home deaths from the virus and Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa's Feb. 10 admission that his office didn't respond to state legislators' request for a tally last August out of concern that Mr. Trump would use it for political purposes at the Governor's expense, came because delays in answering questions created an information void that was filled with "misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories."
But two of his prime legislative critics, Assemblyman Ron Kim and State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, appearing on "Inside City Hall" Feb. 16, accused him of allowing the GNYHA to craft favorable legislation protecting its members from legal liability as part of the last-minute work on the state budget—where Mr. Cuomo has perfected the art of surprise additions to what's known as "The Big Ugly"—last spring.
'Expands the Cover-Up'
"This is a pattern of behavior the Governor does, which is to rope us in, in the Senate and Assembly, to his orbit of corrupt behavior," Mr. Kim, whose uncle died of the coronavirus in a nursing home last year, told NY1's Errol Louis. "What he's doing is expanding the cover-up. In the worst part of the pandemic, he sent in 9,000 COVID patients and gave nursing homes a get-out-of-jail-free card."
Ms. Biaggi was more explicit, saying that as a reward for GNYHA's past generosity to him and the state Democratic Party, the Governor not only approved the inclusion of immunity provisions for medical facilities being written into the budget "at the 11th hour," but those provisions were "written and aggressively advocated for by Greater New York Health...We had a very large and influential special interest writing the provisions in our state budget instead of our State Legislature."
Mr. Piller said the nursing homes probably didn't need to be covered under those immunity provisions because the March 25 Health Department directive essentially compelled them to accept the discharged hospital patients, and under its terms, "they weren't allowed to do testing for whether they were COVID-positive or COVID-negative" beforehand.
The same afternoon that he spoke, the Governor during a media conference call accused Mr. Kim of having pressured nail-salon owners—whom he had targeted in 2015 legislation—for campaign donations. The Queens Assemblyman told the New York Times that Mr. Cuomo was making good on a threat he issued six days earlier in an angry phone call to publicly tarnish him if he did not amend remarks he had made to the New York Post—which broke the story about Ms. DeRosa's apology to state legislators for keeping them in the dark about the true nursing-home death count—that the Governor seemed to be "trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence."
Ms. DeRosa told legislators that her boss believed the Justice Department last summer was targeting New York, along with other states whose Governors were Democrats, including Michigan, California and New Jersey, to aid Mr. Trump's re-election campaign. "And basically, we froze," she said, in explaining why the state devoted its energy to providing the data to the Justice Department and did not supply it to state legislators.
Stayed Mum Post-Election
That excuse could not account for the continued silence after the election, however. It was not until the State Attorney General's report in mid-January estimating that the nurse-home death toll was as much as 50 percent above the official state figure of 8,711 that State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker disclosed that the combined total of deaths in nursing homes and deaths in hospitals of nursing-home patients was 12,743. The Post reported that by Feb. 10 the number, counting those who died of the disease in assistant-living and adult-care facilities, had passed 15,000.
The disclosure of bad news only under duress is something of a Cuomo trademark, a product of his constantly worrying about his political standing even when things are going well. But the growing damage done by his machinations regarding the nursing-home deaths also reflects another characteristic of his political style that seeps into his governing—a reliance on big donors for help and a circling of the wagons to guard against disclosure of the favor-trading in which he engages regarding those contributors.
In 2013, encountering resistance from legislative leaders who subsequently were convicted of Federal corruption charges, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Mr. Cuomo created a state Moreland Commission, whose powers to look into possible corruption, he said, would extend even to his own office.
But in March 2014, nine months before it was scheduled to shut down, the Governor disbanded it, claiming it had served its purpose, even though the changes the legislative leaders belatedly agreed to had no real teeth.
The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan at the time, Preet Bharara, who found Albany a well-stocked pond for public-corruption cases, was not amused, and subpoenaed the commission's files. An article in the New York Times subsequently reported that key aides to the Governor tried to steer members of the panel away any time that it subpoenaed private-sector officials and entities, including the Real Estate Board of New York, whose leaders had donated to his political campaigns and were part of a business coalition, the Committee to Save New York, that spent close to $20 million on ads supporting his agenda when he took office in 2011.
'I Got the Power'
With an arrogance his father Mario, a three-term Governor, knew better than to flash in public, Andrew responded to criticism of his jettisoning the panel by declaring, "My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it."
Mr. Bharara bided his time and eventually brought indictments against Mr. Cuomo's closest aide, Secretary to the Governor Joe Percoco, and Alain Kaloyeros, whom Andrew once called "New York's Secret Weapon," for their roles in the Governor's Buffalo Billion economic-development project.
Mr. Percoco, saddled with a huge mortgage beyond what he could afford on just a well-paid public servant's salary, was convicted of taking bribes. In contrast, Mr. Kaloyeros got no payoffs while awarding $850 million in state contracts to three firms whose principals just happened to be major donors to the Governor.
But after he began discussions with the three donors about how requests for proposals for the contracts could be tailored to virtually guarantee they would be selected, he was elevated from a high-level job within the State University of New York to serve as the founding President of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which along with prestige brought a considerable bump in salary.
Mr. Kaloyeros apparently never conferred with the Governor about his corrupt conduct: Federal prosecutors emphasized that there was no evidence Mr. Cuomo had done anything improper. But all indications were that the man he had once dubbed a "genius" got downright stupid in how the bidding process was structured to endear himself to the Governor by rewarding his major donors.
During the trial, after the executive whose firm got the $750-million contract for a project in the Buffalo area was spotlighted, his lawyer told the jury that he had been furious about the contract being tilted in such a way—it was written to go to a local developer who had been in business for more than a half-century—as to be unfair to his competition.
Too Easy to Smell
A prosecutor in the case told the jury that what bothered the developer wasn't that the deck was stacked in his favor, but that it was too blatant not to be detected. The first rule in not getting caught, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Boone explained to jurors, was, "Don't make it too easy for people to see what you're doing."
Mr. Cuomo's reaction to the guilty verdicts, which came in separate trials, was to express his disdain for dishonesty. Somehow he had been unaware of Mr. Percoco's money troubles, although his former aide was sufficiently close to the family that at Mario's funeral, Andrew described him as the former Governor's "third son." He said following the conviction of Mr. Kaloyeros that he had "no tolerance for those who seek to defraud the system to advance their own personal interests."
One of the issues that arose during the case against Mr. Percoco, who in 2014 took a leave from his position as Secretary to the Governor to work on Mr. Cuomo's re-election campaign, was that he continued working from his desk near his boss's in violation of state ethics laws. Somehow the Governor said he never noticed.
People normally don't describe a self-professed control freak as cute, but Mr. Cuomo's ability to feign ignorance when he sees political benefit in doing so would qualify him, though not in a good way.
There is a weakness in being unable to admit error because you think it undercuts your image. During his President's Day press conference in which he tried to explain the past stonewalling about nursing-home deaths without actually apologizing for it, the Governor made some relevant points in talking about New York's record compared to other states.
He noted that nationally, while nursing-home residents accounted for less than 1 percent of the population, they comprised 36 percent of the coronavirus-related deaths. The number for New York was 30 percent, he said, not great but better than the 54 percent in Massachusetts, 52 percent in Pennsylvania, and 34 percent in Florida.
The Governor said decisions concerning the return of nursing-home residents once the hospitals that treated them decided they were stabilized were made after consulting with top medical professionals.
So Why Cover Up?
The obvious question becomes: why didn't he offer some of this belated candor last spring or summer? One reason is that admitting mistakes were made that added to the nursing-home death toll would have made a memoir about the crisis less attractive to publishers.
No doubt it would also have been used against him by Mr. Trump, a man incapable of taking responsibility for his own mistakes but swift to point the finger at others.
And among those outside New York who came to appreciate Mr. Cuomo's briefings on the state of the pandemic in New York and what was being done to cope with it was Joe Biden, who praised the leadership he displayed in mixing uncomfortable facts about the death toll with uncharacteristic flashes of warmth and caring, particularly when talking about his family and his mother Matilda.
That, too, could have been turned against him and Mr. Biden by Mr. Trump, and one axiom of politics is that you don't hand your opponents ammunition to use against you.
But another rule of the game is that when there's bad news floating out there, deal with it quickly rather than letting it seep out in small trickles or come gushing out in a flood. Assemblyman Kim was invoking a cliche that got its wings during Watergate when he said on "Inside City Hall," "The cover-up is always worse than the crime."
And it doesn't get better when your response is first to loudly berate a relatively anonymous Assemblyman who comes from the same borough where you grew up, then accuse him during a conference call with reporters of engaging in a dubious fund-raising practice more than five years ago. Especially when people on both sides of the political aisle have begun asking questions about whether immunity given to hospitals and medical facilities under the state budget was granted not because it was warranted but because you owed some big donors.
That was why, while Mr. Cuomo came off as a bully while stunning reporters with the vehemence of his accusations, Mr. Kim won the round when he countered by faulting the Governor's "fatally incompetent management."
Asked Feb. 17 how much political damage had been done to Mr. Cuomo by the recent revelations, veteran political consultant George Arzt cited a poll by Siena College released a day earlier finding that 61 percent of those surveyed still gave him high marks for his handling of the pandemic and 67 percent approved of his communication skills.
Needs to Come Cleaner
But while "Andrew still has a strong showing in the polls," he said, "the left wing of the Democratic Party and the Republicans are still going to beat the drums on the nursing homes, and that's going to have an impact on his popularity and influence in the Democratic Party."
And, Mr. Arzt added, those whose family members died in nursing homes over the past 11 months "are going to be wondering whether their relatives would still be alive today except for the state's policies."
To regain public confidence, he said, Mr. Cuomo "needs to give a timeline of events that went into his thinking. The answer from Melissa [DeRosa] that they froze, that they were afraid of a Trump investigation, doesn't fly."
There had been calls earlier in the week by some Democrats as well as Republicans for a Federal investigation; later that day, the Albany Times Union reported that a probe had been launched By the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney. Mr. Arzt questioned whether a case could be made, however, saying, "You could look at every other state that made similar mistakes."
Asked whether the Governor was susceptible to a challenge if he sought a fourth term next year, he replied, "More vulnerable than he would have been if this had not happened."
If serious opposition surfaced in the Democratic primary, Mr. Cuomo's long friendship and early support of Mr. Biden for the presidency might help blunt it. Mr. Arzt wondered whether a credible Republican challenger would emerge, and when Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro—who ran reasonably well given his low profile and meager bank account in the 2018 race—was mentioned,Mr. Arzt noted he was "not exactly a household name in New York City."
Then again, neither was George Pataki—a State Senator from Poughkeepsie who lacked Mr. Molinaro's executive experience—when he upset Mario Cuomo in his bid for a fourth term in 1994.
The only advantage Andrew may have over his father back then is that there's no chance he'll be endorsed by Rudy Giuliani, another imperious New York character who showed a knack starting on 9/11 for calming an uneasy public, but whose flaws, both in terms of personality and decision-making, became more glaring with time.
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