ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s top aide said the administration withheld information about nursing home deaths from the State Legislature for six months because it was facing a Trump administration probe into the deaths and had to provide it with the information first.
The statement, however, didn't quell the criticism from a growing number of Democrats who want his emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic to be rescinded or from Republicans, who accuse Cuomo of undercounting nursing home deaths and want it investigated.
Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s chief of staff, told a small group of key Senate and Assembly members in a private meeting Wednesday night that the administration "basically froze" when the legislature asked for the information because it was dealing with the U.S. Department of Justice inquiry.
"... We weren't sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys 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.
Ultimately, DeRosa said the state answered the Justice Department's questions and it apparently accepted the answers and didn’t initiate a full investigation, according to the transcript of the meeting, which was first reported by the New York Post.
There was no immediate comment from the Justice Department.
The undercount issue has become a flashpoint for relatives of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 and for legislators who have demanded since August a full accounting of deaths. Some progressive Democrats and most Republicans have accused the Cuomo administration of undercounting nursing home deaths following its March 25 guidance telling nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals.
"This is a betrayal of the public trust," State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) tweeted Friday. "There needs to be full accountability for what happened."
The Cuomo administration, however, said they had to prioritize the earlier inquiry by the Trump administration to avoid a political attack and a charge of obstructing justice, which is a crime.
"That played a very large role into this," DeRosa said, according to the transcript provided by two sources. "We went to the (state legislative) leaders and we said to the leaders, can we please pause on getting back to everybody until we get through this period and we know what's what with the DOJ?"
The Democratic leader of the Assembly disputes that.
"Other than what was reported in the news, the speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry," said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) acknowledged the Cuomo administration told her staff the federal inquiry delayed release of data, but she still questioned the length of the delay.
"Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic and our responses to it must be led by policy, not politics," Stewart-Cousins said Friday.
Fourteen Democratic senators, including the chamber's progressive leaders, called for the legislature to end Cuomo's extraordinary power to create and amend laws. He gained the power when he ordered a state of emergency in April to act quickly during the pandemic as the virus raced through the state with no vaccine in sight.
"It is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the governor are no longer appropriate," the senators said.
Some legislators in Wednesday’s closed-door meeting criticized the administration.
"You’re not going to convince me that you could not have done this audit faster than six months’ time," said Sen. James Skoufis (D-Woodbury), chairman of the Senate Investigations Committee. "I believe you started the audit a few weeks ago when this all started to bubble over."
That bubble over included a critical report by Attorney General Letitia James, who said the Cuomo administration may have undercounted nursing home deaths for months by as much as 50%. Days later, the Cuomo administration added hundreds of deaths to the total.
DeRosa said the release of data on nursing home deaths was further delayed by the crush of the pandemic and the difficulty of piecing together death records.