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Cuomo probes move toward critical points with his tenure, legacy at stake

Families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in

Families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center in. Brooklyn on Oct. 18, 2020 to demand Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologize for his response to clusters in nursing homes during the pandemic. Credit: AP/Yuki Iwamura

ALBANY — While the investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have taken center stage, the other probes he’s facing are quietly moving forward and widening.

And the stakes are high for the third-term governor, running from the possibility of impeachment to shaping the way history remembers him.

"Two things are at stake. First, his entire legacy," said Gerald Benjamin, a retired political scientist from the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Second, he said, is the more immediate question of whether any of the investigations result in charges against the governor or his staff, spur impeachment proceedings and alter the course of the 2022 elections.

"You’ve got three different institutions looking at accusations and he’s going to have to have clean bills of health on all of them to survive," said Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist, referring to probes by the State Assembly, state attorney general and U.S. Department of Justice. "And the state-level institutions are all in his (Democratic) party, so he can’t claim partisan politics. That makes it tougher for him."

Inquiries regarding the Cuomo administration's handling of nursing homes and deaths from COVID-19, the governor's possible use of state personnel and resources to help produce his most recent book and the multiple allegations of sexual harassment leveled at the governor are advancing, according to interviews with Newsday and reports. Even if not at the pace some Cuomo critics would want.

The governor has said he’s done nothing wrong, either on nursing homes or the production of his book, and that he can’t wait to tell his side of the sexual harassment allegations

Among the developments, two state legislators confirmed they have been interviewed by the U.S. Justice Department about a Feb. 10 meeting in which Cuomo's closest aide admitted withholding nursing home data from them.

"I was asked to interview with the federal authorities because I was a member of the committee" in the meeting, Assemb. John McDonald (D-Cohoes), referring to the six legislators who met with top Cuomo staff, including Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor.

At that meeting, DeRosa said the administration "froze" in 2020 when pressed by legislators about the number of nursing home deaths because it thought the data might be "used against us" by federal prosecutors in the Trump administration.

McDonald said federal officials wanted to know "did this really happen?" He said interviewers were "extremely thorough" while adding, "I told them I thought (holding the meeting) was a good-faith effort by the administration to work with the Legislature."

Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) also said he’s talked with the Justice Department.

"Earlier this month, I spoke with federal investigators who expressed interest in a variety of topics, from what were the requirements set by the DOH for nursing homes to the governor's interactions with the Legislature since the pandemic started," Rivera said in a statement, referring to the state Department of Health.

The Cuomo administration has been accused of undercounting and downplaying the number of deaths of nursing home patients due to COVID-19. The governor has said the administration never undercounted the overall number of deaths and it made no difference whether the deaths were attributed to nursing homes or hospitals. The governor also has sought to blame a "toxic political environment" for the criticism.

"All the deaths in the nursing homes and hospitals were always fully, publicly and accurately reported," the governor said earlier this year. "We should have done a better job of providing as much information as we could as quickly as we could. … No excuses: I accept responsibility for that."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department probe has expanded to examine whether Cuomo family members and associates received priority testing last year when COVID-19 tests were scarce, according to media reports.

Attorney General Letitia James has been overseeing the investigation of sexual harassment. But her office additionally is looking at whether the governor used state personnel and resources to help produce his book about the pandemic — which landed him a $5.1 million deal from a publisher.

James’ office also has interviewed several county officials about Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s former "vaccine czar," calling them to assess their support for the governor amid the investigations.

Regarding the harassment allegations, Cuomo has said "the truth will be told and the truth is much, much different from what has been suggested."

The administration denied Schwartz pressured county leaders and contended any staff that provided editing or copying help with the book had volunteered and wasn’t doing so on state time.

Also in Albany, lawyers helping the Assembly Judiciary Committee investigate whether Cuomo should be impeached have interviewed 75 people, said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), the committee chairman.

The committee is looking at whether there are grounds to impeach Cuomo on four issues: Sexual harassment, nursing homes, the governor’s book and safety concerns over a Hudson River bridge.

Critics from the political left and right argued the committee — launched in March — is moving too slowly. They’ve accused it of stalling, perhaps to Cuomo’s benefit.

"There is already more than enough evidence to warrant Cuomo’s removal from office, yet the Assembly continues to dither and protect his power at the expense of New Yorkers," Republican State Chairman Nick Langworthy said.

But a key Republican member of the impeachment committee disagreed.

"In my opinion, they have made significant progress in each of these issues," said Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head), the ranking Republican on the committee. "There have been a lot of interviews, a lot of documentary evidence collected."

Asked about the accusation of stalling, Montesano said: "No, that’s just not true. If I saw things were going in that direction, I would be the first to say so. In my opinion, it’s a phenomenal investigation so far. It’s solid information we’re getting."

Syracuse’s Reeher said when the initial wave of sexual harassments "started piling up" — and leading Democrats called for Cuomo’s resignation — the governor’s future seemed in immediate peril.

Since then, the multiple investigations have taken on a "drip, drip, drip aspect," he said, which can lead in decidedly different directions.

"Sometimes the drip, drip eventually evaporates," Reeher said. "But sometimes the drip, drip collects and adds up to something."

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