New York state senators questioned Governor Andrew Cuomo Monday after the state’s Democratic leader said he informed the legislature about a Department of Justice probe into COVID-19 deaths that occurred within New York nursing homes.
Cuomo has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans in recent days about his administration’s COVID-19 data reporting in nursing homes, with some calling for his removal from office over the controversy. The debate stems from the way the state has reported COVID-19 deaths among the elderly, with the number of those who died in hospitals separated from the total number of nursing home deaths.
Last August, the Department of Justice (DOJ) officially asked the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan to provide the department with data about policies that may have resulted in nursing home deaths. The outcome of the data received could result in an investigation, the DOJ said at the time.
During a Monday news conference, Cuomo referenced that DOJ request and said his administration had informed the state legislature about it. Cuomo said the New York State Department of Health received a separate letter from the DOJ in October, but he said his administration learned about that request through the media rather than through official channels.
Cuomo said his staff told the legislative staff about the DOJ request when a reporter asked how the information was passed along.
“The staff of the Assembly and the Senate were told that—not just that we were responding to DOJ, because that was in the newspaper—but that we couldn’t respond to the state legislative request, or we wouldn’t respond to state legislative requests because we were dealing with the DOJ request,” Cuomo said.
“The staff was told that. Who the staff told on their staff, I don’t know. But, you know, if you tell Rob Mujica something, then he’s supposed to tell me,” he added, referring to New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica. “If he doesn’t, you still told my staff, so that’s what that is.”
Democratic State Senator Alessandra Biaggi—who recently said a report from New York Attorney General Letitia James about COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes revealed “a profound failure of executive leadership”—further criticized Cuomo following his Monday news conference.
“No, @NYGovCuomo , you did not tell the *entire* Senate or Assembly that there was a DOJ investigation, as the reason why you didn’t share the nursing home numbers,” Biaggi tweeted. “I found out about a DOJ investigation with the rest of NY’ers in the @nypost story Thursday night.”
When a reporter asked Cuomo for further clarification on who in the state legislature was informed about the DOJ request, Cuomo reiterated that his staff told the legislature’s staff about the request.
“Let’s be clear: Legislative staff was told by my staff, okay. So, legislative staff was told. Top legislative staff was told,” Cuomo said.
The governor went on to explain that the DOJ request was covered widely in the media. “There was no secret about the DOJ letters. They were in the newspaper. Staff was told that we were giving DOJ precedence,” Cuomo said. “The DOJ requests were in the newspaper, so that was not news, and the staff of both houses were told, and that’s not news.”
A spokesperson for New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, previously acknowledged that Heastie was aware of a DOJ inquiry but had no additional information about the department’s request from Cuomo’s administration.
“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 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,” Heastie’s director of communications, Michael Whyland, said in a February 12 statement.
Following the governor’s comments on Monday, one Republican state senator pushed further for the name of the person on his staff who was told about the DOJ request.
“I’m asking the Governor for the name of his staff person and who the person was he notified on my staff that he told it was the DOJ delaying the information I called for related to the deaths of nursing home residents and data related to it,” New York Sen. James Tedisco wrote on Twitter.
State Senator Robert Ortt, a Republican, released a statement Monday afternoon saying Senate Republicans were not told about the DOJ request.
“To be clear, the Senate Republicans were never notified by the Governor’s Administration regarding the Department of Justice request,” Ortt wrote.
When contacted for further comment, Cuomo’s office referred Newsweek to Cuomo’s response to reporters earlier Monday, during which he said his staff had told legislative staff about the federal department’s request.