The bitter public feud underscored widening political rifts over the Cuomo administration’s months-long withholding of data about nursing home residents who died of covid-19 in outside facilities, as more Democratic and Republican lawmakers allege that the governor obstructed justice. Legislators are calling for Cuomo to face criminal investigations and be stripped of his expanded pandemic emergency powers after his aide’s admissions last week fueled allegations of a coverup.
In a call with Democratic state legislators on Feb. 10 that was first reported by the New York Post, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa said officials feared last year after inquiries from the Justice Department that the nursing home data would be “used against us,” and “we froze.”
Amid a public outcry, DeRosa sought to clarify, saying officials “needed to temporarily set aside” New York legislators’ request for information last year while they dealt with federal inquiries.
“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ,” she said. But backlash has mounted in the past week.
Nine Democratic members of the state Assembly, including Kim, said in a letter Tuesday that they think it is “unambiguously clear” that Cuomo intentionally obstructed justice, criticizing a “criminal use of power.”
Democratic leaders in the state Senate have joined in the push to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers, according to the New York Times. Republican members of Congress on Wednesday called for the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine Cuomo’s “coverup” and said they expect Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, to “commit the Department of Justice to fully investigating” when he testifies before the committee.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn opened its inquiry after news of the call became public, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing. Several people have been interviewed, this person said, but it was not immediately clear what laws may potentially have been broken.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York and the FBI in New York have declined to comment. Their investigation was first reported by the Albany Times-Union.
Kim’s account of the governor’s phone call set off another fight.
A senior adviser to Cuomo said in a statement that Kim was “lying about his conversation” and was only asked to “put out a truthful statement” after telling the governor that he had been misquoted in a news report.
“At no time did anyone threaten to ‘destroy’ anyone with their ‘wrath’ nor engage in a ‘coverup,’ ” adviser Rich Azzopardi said. “That’s beyond the pale and is unfortunately part of a years-long pattern of lies by Mr. Kim against this administration.”
Kim, who was on the leaked call last week with DeRosa, had made critical comments to the New York Post. He said DeRosa seemed to admit “that they were trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence that might put the administration or the [Health Department] in further trouble with the Department of Justice,” according to the New York Post.
Kim says he was not misquoted but tried unsuccessfully to retract his comments, feeling bad for DeRosa and being loath to “add fuel” to the coming firestorm. He said he was about to bathe his children last Thursday when he got a call from the governor.
“The first words out of his mouth [were], ‘Mr. Kim, are you an honorable man?’ ” he recounted in an interview, saying he wrote down notes from the conversation shortly afterward. “I remember him saying, ‘You haven’t seen my wrath. I bit my tongue about you for months, and I will go out tomorrow and destroy you and start telling the world how bad of a member you are, and you will be finished.’”
Kim said Cuomo told him to put out a statement backtracking, emphasizing that DeRosa had simply said officials needed to take care of the federal government’s inquiries first. “ ‘Not tomorrow — tonight,’ ” Kim recalled Cuomo saying. “I remember vividly he said that.”
Kim said he decided not to issue the proposed statement, however, because Cuomo was “asking me to lie.”
Cuomo shot back publicly in a briefing Wednesday, saying his office had long-standing tensions with Kim dating to a rift about protections for nail salon workers. He said Kim had agreed last week to put out a statement after saying he had been misquoted.
“ ‘Yes, I will do that,’ he says. And then he never did it,” Cuomo said of Kim. “So, so much for Mr. Kim’s credibility, and I said to him on the phone, ‘You know, there is still integrity and honor and decency in politics.’”
“In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests?” he said. “In my opinion, yes, and I think that’s what created the void. But do I understand the pressure everyone was under? Yes.”
New York added thousands of deaths to its nursing home count after the state attorney general’s office said late last month that the numbers should be much higher. Cuomo and state officials have pushed back on accusations of a coverup, emphasizing that the additional nursing home deaths were always included in their overall tallies.
DeRosa said on the Feb. 10 call that state lawmakers’ inquiries about nursing homes last year came as “President Trump turns this into a giant political football,” according to a partial call transcript from the governor’s office. DeRosa noted that Trump had directed the Justice Department to investigate in New York.
“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, what we start saying, was going to be used against us, while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said. “That played a very large role into this.”
The state legislature wrote to the Health Department on Aug. 20 with questions about the missing nursing home data and other issues. Six days later, the Justice Department requested information about nursing home deaths and covid-19.
The Health Department did not respond to questions from the state Senate and the state Assembly until last week.
Kim, who initially said he did not want a fight with Cuomo, has hardened in his criticism.
“After seeing the press conference on Monday, I realized that he’s not interested in telling the truth,” he said.
Shayna Jacobs in New York contributed to this report.