To justify deceiving the world about the scale of the pandemic in New York’s nursing homes, Gov. Cuomo has turned to a familiar scapegoat: Donald Trump. The story doesn’t add up at all.
Cuomo’s administration recently and grudgingly admitted under court order that more than 15,000 residents of the state’s long-term care facilities died of COVID-19 over the past year — which is 6,000 more than the state had previously acknowledged.
In a private meeting on Wednesday, angry state legislators asked why this fact and others had been withheld from them and the public for so long. Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, answered:
“President Trump turns this into a giant political football. . . . He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” she said, according to a recording first obtained by The Post.
“He directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us. . . . And, 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, . . . was going to be used against us.” (Emphasis added.)
This statement — which DeRosa has confirmed to be accurate — is astonishing on many levels. She was effectively confessing to a months-long cover-up involving both the governor’s office and the Health Department. She specifically cited concern about a federal investigation and political blowback. And she presented that as if it were a legitimate rationale for hiding public records from duly elected members of the Legislature, not to mention everyone else.
An even bigger problem: Her explanation doesn’t wash with the facts.
Goodness knows the former president can be blamed for a lot of things. Forcing Cuomo to lie is not among them.
To start with, DeRosa’s timeline makes no sense. The federal inquiry began Aug. 23, and Trump’s nursing home-related Twitter attack on Cuomo and other governors came in early September.
By that time, Team Cuomo had been stonewalling questions about nursing home deaths for months — dating back to May 2020, when the Health Department quietly started omitting the deaths of residents who were shifted to hospitals before passing, which turned out to be roughly one-third of the toll.
At an Aug. 3 legislative hearing, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker acknowledged having the additional data, said it needed checking for accuracy and promised to provide it to lawmakers as soon as possible. It wasn’t until three weeks later that the Justice Department opened a preliminary inquiry (not an investigation) involving fewer than 30 facilities.
Second, officials concerned about an investigation would be expected to keep quiet on the subject. Instead, Cuomo and Zucker repeatedly claimed that New York’s nursing-home death toll was proportionally among the lowest of any state’s — which they knew to be based on a low-ball count and therefore false.
Third, Team Cuomo showed no intention of coming clean even after Trump was voted out of office. They postponed answering an Aug. 3 Freedom of Information request from Empire Center three times — most recently delaying their response to March 22, 2021, more than a year after the pandemic hit.
It was only when Attorney General Letitia James faulted the state’s nursing-home data that the Cuomo administration’s stonewall started crumbling. And it took a court victory by Empire Center, and a judge’s order, to finally flush out the full truth on behalf of more than 15,000 long-term care residents who died — and 15,000 families who lost loved ones.
DeRosa’s implausible apology came Feb. 10, which was also the deadline for the state to comply with the court order. That’s probably no coincidence.
The bottom line: Cuomo and his administration deceived New Yorkers as long as they could, and told the truth only when state Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor forced them to.
For most of the past year, it was the Cuomo administration — not Donald Trump — who withheld public records in violation of state law and in defiance of the state Legislature.
If nothing else, DeRosa’s statement makes clear that the governor and his people did so intentionally, and were at least partly motivated by protecting their own interests rather than the public health.
So what are the lawmakers in that meeting — and the rest of Legislature — going to do about it?
Bill Hammond is senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center.