ALBANY — The U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI have begun a criminal investigation into the Cuomo administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, according to sources knowledgeable about the probe.
The sources said the investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn was triggered by statements made by secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa in a Feb. 10 Zoom meeting with legislators, during which she acknowledged that the administration had delayed providing information of nursing home deaths to the State Legislature.
The investigation was started over the weekend by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District in Brooklyn and a public integrity squad in Manhattan, the sources said, adding that the preliminary investigation was looking into a variety of potential crimes, including obstruction and inappropriate use of federal funds.
John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, declined to comment.
News of the investigation intensified criticism by Republicans and some Democrats over Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. They have cited a Jan. 28 report by state Attorney General Letitia James that found the health department may have undercounted deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%. Since then, the state has revised the total to more than 15,000.
Cuomo has repeatedly denied deaths of nursing homes residents were undercounted. He said that reconciling hospital and nursing home records was complex and took months of work during the pandemic and that his administration fully cooperated with federal inquiries.
In the lengthy Zoom meeting with legislators, DeRosa said the administration "froze" in providing nursing home data to the Legislature because officials learned in August of a federal probe into how the administration had handled COVID-19 in nursing homes, according to a transcript of the meeting provided by the administration.
DeRosa said the administration delayed responding to the Legislature because it prioritized a response to the Justice Department. She said the federal probe was politically motivated by the Trump administration and the Cuomo administration wasn’t sure if what it would provide to the Justice Department or to the Legislature "was going to be used against us."
DeRosa said the Justice Department accepted the answers the state provided and didn't launch a formal investigation.
On Thursday, a week after the Feb. 10 meeting, the sources confirmed that the U.S. attorney and FBI began a new investigation this month.
"I have no idea exactly what they are looking for or when it started," said Assembly Health Committee chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), who was a vocal participant in the Feb. 10 meeting. "It has not seemed to me that there is something that would call for a criminal investigation going on."
"As we publicly said, DOJ (Department of Justice) has been looking into this for months," said Cuomo’s senior adviser, Richard Azzopardi. "We have been cooperating with them and we will continue to."
Azzopardi referred to the Cuomo administration’s response to letters sent from the Justice Department to the administration on Aug. 26 seeking information on nursing home deaths and the administration’s directives, guidance and orders to nursing homes.
The Aug. 26 letter stated that the Justice Department was evaluating if it should open an investigation into nursing home deaths from the virus. That letter was followed by another letter on Oct. 28 expanding the review from a couple of dozen state-operated nursing homes to the more than 600 publicly and privately operated nursing homes statewide.
On Thursday, the criticism of the Cuomo administration’s handling of the virus in nursing homes continued.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) accused Cuomo of a cover-up of undercounting nursing home deaths.
"We have witnessed the Cuomo cover-up go off the rails," Zeldin said. "It is clear that what is happening here is criminal."
Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt said Cuomo may face impeachment over the issue.
"There is a growing cloud over the Cuomo administration," Ortt said. "If this investigation reveals deliberate obstruction, as I suspect it will, the Legislature must move toward impeachment."
Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday he didn't believe the criticism is just a partisan attack.
"I don't think it's coming from one side of the spectrum or another," said de Blasio, who has often been in conflict with Cuomo. "I think it's a concern we're hearing from the families who lost their loved ones and across the spectrum."
With Matthew Chayes