The FBI and US attorney’s office in Brooklyn have begun an investigation into how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration handled the state’s nursing home crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report Wednesday.
The investigation is not yet far along and is focused on top members of Cuomo’s coronavirus task force, the Albany Times-Union reported, citing a source with direct knowledge of the matter. Neither Cuomo nor any administration official has at this point been accused of any wrongdoing.
Members of Cuomo’s task force include New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa. The latter drew scrutiny this month after she seemingly admitted the governor’s team withheld information related to COVID-19-related deaths at nursing homes.
“As we publicly said, DOJ has been looking into this for months. We have been cooperating with them and we will continue to,” Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi said in a statement.
It is not clear whether Azzopardi’s statement refers to the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s probe, which the Times-Union describes as “in its early stages.” Azzopardi’s statement did not specify whether Cuomo’s office was in touch with FBI or US Attorney officials regarding a fresh investigation.
A spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn told the Times-Union he could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation was underway.
Cuomo has faced bipartisan scrutiny over his handling of the nursing home crisis. Critics have focused on Cuomo’s March 25 memo directing nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients at their facilities. The order was later rescinded.
Last August, the Justice Department sent out a request for data on nursing home deaths during the pandemic to several state governors, including Cuomo.
Earlier Wednesday, Cuomo’s office released a full transcript of a Feb. 10 call between senior aides, including DeRosa and state Democratic lawmakers who pressed the governor’s team to explain why it hadn’t fulfilled a request from the New York State legislature for more data on nursing home deaths.
The New York Post was first to report that DeRosa said the administration withheld data out of concern it could be “used against us” in a federal probe.
“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 you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said on the call.
DeRosa, and later Cuomo himself, clarified that the request from state lawmakers for more data was put on hold while the administration fulfilled the federal request.
Speaking at a press conference last Monday, the governor said his team told staffers at the New York State Assembly and Senate at the time that their request for data was “paused.”
Cuomo said his team cooperated “fully” with the DOJ’s initial request for data last August. He said that his team learned of a second DOJ request for data last October after reading about it in the New York Post.
“We didn’t even get the letter,” Cuomo said. “The Post called and told us about the letter and that requested information on private nursing homes and we have been voluntarily producing information on that on a rolling basis.”
Presently, it isn’t clear whether the latest US Attorney probe into the Cuomo administration is connected to the DOJ’s past data requests.
Cuomo also pushed back on criticism related to his March 25 memo, telling reporters that it was based on federal guidance at the time. The governor said patients were only discharged to facilities that acknowledged they were equipped to safely receive them.
Of the 365 nursing homes that received a recovering COVID-19 patient from a hospital, 98% of the facilities had already reported COVID-19 exposure prior to the patient’s return, according to Cuomo.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of Cuomo’s handling of the situation. Criticism intensified after the Associated Press reported New York significantly underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes.
A group of state Democrats has called for Cuomo to be stripped of his emergency powers following the nursing home scandal. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ted Cruz and other GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have called for a congressional probe into the situation.
Cuomo and his team maintain that data were always reported accurately.
“I want everyone to know, everything was done,” Cuomo said. “Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest and the last thing we wanted to do- the last thing that I wanted to do was to aggravate a terrible situation.”
Author: Thomas Barrabi