Support for ending Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency law-making powers, granted to him by the Legislature to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be growing after news reports revealed that his top aides withheld key nursing home data from lawmakers last year.
Lawmakers are now arguing that the revelation should merit immediate action from the Legislature, albeit the preferred course varies depending on who you ask.
Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Cuomo, told Democrats behind closed doors this week that the Cuomo administration withheld data on COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents out of concern that it would put a target on their back for former President Donald Trump.
The news was first reported by the New York Post Thursday evening.
Basically, we froze because then 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 [the Legislature] 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, according to a partial transcript of the meeting.
That transcript, released Friday morning by the Cuomo administration, shows a back-and-forth between DeRosa and top lawmakers in the Legislature over data on nursing homes, and why it wasn’t made available to them earlier.
Some, namely Republicans, have characterized DeRosa’s comments as an indication that the Cuomo administration may be in legal trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice. Others have labeled the strategy as political, but not unlawful.
DeRosa went on to say that there’s no indication, as of now, that federal prosecutors are still eyeing New York.
Lawmakers are still seeking data on nursing homes, but the Cuomo administration, in recent weeks, has disclosed the number of nursing home residents who died outside hospitals — something that wasn’t previously available to the public.
In a matter of weeks, the number of publicly known nursing home deaths jumped from about 8,700 to more than 13,000, according to data provided by the administration.
DeRosa issued a statement Friday morning to explain what she was trying to get at during her conversation with lawmakers.
"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,” DeRosa said. “We informed the houses of this at the time.”
“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout. As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked.”
But some lawmakers don’t appear to be satisfied by that response, calling for immediate action from the Legislature.
About a third of the Democratic conference in the State Senate issued a statement Friday morning calling for Cuomo’s emergency lawmaking powers to be immediately revoked. Those were granted to him last March to streamline the state’s response to COVID-19.
“Without exception, the New York State Constitution calls for the Legislature to govern as a co-equal branch of government,” the coalition said.
While COVID-19 has tested the limits of our people and state — and, early during the pandemic, required the government to restructure decision making to render rapid, necessary public health judgements — it is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the Governor are no longer appropriate.”
On the statement were Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jabari Brispot, Samra Brouk, Jeremy Cooney, Andrew Gounardes, Robert Jackson, John Liu, John Mannion, Rachel May, Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, Gustavo Rivera, Julia Salazar, James Sanders, and James Skoufis.
And while that’s no small feat, the group of Democrats would also have to convince the rest of their colleagues to move forward. They hold a strong majority in the chamber, with 43 seats.
Other Democrats are pushing less immediate action, including public hearings on the matter. Republicans have been pushing for additional public hearings on nursing homes for the last several months. Democrats held a pair of hearings on the topic last year.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said in a statement Friday that Democrats would be discussing how to move forward together in the coming days.
“Crucial information should never be withheld from entities that are empowered to pursue oversight. This was always about getting the truth and allowing information to guide our response,” Stewart-Cousins said.
“That is why we had multiple hearings and another hearing scheduled for this month. And why we requested this information in the first place. Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic and our responses to it must be led by policy, not politics. As always, we will be discussing next steps as a conference."
A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, issued a statement Friday morning reacting to the report, saying the speaker was never aware of an investigation into New York from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“There was a formal request from Assembly committee chairs and other members to the Department of Health asking for more information on follow up questions in regards to data on nursing homes,” the spokesman said.
“The Governor's office communicated to staff that they needed more time to provide the information. Other than what was reported in the news, the Speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for everything from removing Cuomo’s emergency powers to his impeachment and removal from office.
Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt, in a statement Friday, said the Legislature should immediately reconvene to revoke those powers, which was a position he’d already held before DeRosa’s remarks were made public.
“We have repeatedly called on the Majority to join us in revoking the Governor’s emergency powers -- after this report, it is clear the Majority must convene a special session and join us in doing so immediately,” Ortt said.
State Republican Chair Nick Langworthy said in a statement that he thought Cuomo should be prosecuted and removed from office.
"Andrew Cuomo has abused his power and destroyed the trust placed in the office of governor,” Langworthy said. “Prosecution and impeachment discussions must begin right away.”
Albany reporter Dan Clark is the host & producer of New York Now, seen on WNED PBS Sunday mornings at 9:30