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How Cuomo put a political loyalist in charge of New York’s vaccine rollout

Larry Schwartz, who is serving in a volunteer capacity as head of New York’s vaccine distribution, is a longtime political ally of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He does not have a public health background. (John Lamparski/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
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Around midnight on March 4, county officials across New York received a startling email threat from Larry Schwartz, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s volunteer vaccine czar.

Their counties had kept more than 250 doses of vaccines on hand for more than a week, Schwartz claimed, and if they did not begin administering them, they could face penalties of $100,000 a day — and even lose access to more inoculations.

“Your failure to administer doses in a timely fashion is not acceptable and frustrates the purpose of New York’s Vaccine program,” Schwartz wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Later that day, Schwartz — a longtime Cuomo ally and airport concessions executive who has no experience in public health — received a flurry of panicked calls from county officials.

It turned out the state’s data was wrong about the number of doses that at least 27 sites had on hand, Schwartz later acknowledged. He was forced to send a contrite apology.

“I deeply apologize for this miscommunication and any confusion or distress it may have caused,” he wrote in a March 5 email. “The State’s enrolled providers have been a vital partner in the Vaccine Program, and we are grateful for your partnership and continued efforts to assist in administration of this life-saving measure.”

Schwartz told The Post that he is “never afraid to admit when I or the team make a mistake.”

The episode illustrates the aggressive approach that county and former state officials say Schwartz has taken in his role as the head of New York’s vaccine distribution — and how Cuomo’s reliance on a small circle of loyalists has shaped the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor and his aides have been accused of obscuring the extent of nursing-home deaths in the state linked to covid-19, an issue that has drawn the attention of federal investigators.

Now Schwartz, who previously served as Cuomo's top deputy before leaving government in 2015, is under scrutiny for calls he made earlier this month to county officials assessing their loyalty to the governor amid a burgeoning sexual harassment investigation.

New York’s vaccine czar called county officials to gauge their loyalty to Cuomo amid sexual harassment investigation

Since Cuomo tapped him to oversee the state’s vaccine rollout in December, Schwartz has exerted singular influence on distribution of the vital doses across the state, according to people familiar with his role. He is involved in decisions about where vaccines go and where to locate highly sought mass-vaccination sites being rolled out by the state, they said.

Meanwhile, a task force on vaccine distribution commissioned by the governor has been largely dormant for the past month, while its 25 members — which include epidemiologists, professors, state officials, hospital executives and community leaders — have been caught off guard by some of the administration’s decisions, according to four people with knowledge of the task force, who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of drawing the governor’s ire. There is no plan for another meeting, the people said, and they have been told not to discuss the agendas or the task force’s work.

Alicia Ouellette, dean of the Albany Law School and a leading bioethics expert who was appointed to the state task force last year, said she was unaware of how some of the state’s vaccine distribution plans had been formulated.

“I think a lot of the decisions are being made by a small number of people,” Ouellette said. “It’s my impression that is being made by a small team within the governor’s office.”

People with knowledge of the Department of Health’s operations say most of the vaccine decisions are made on the second floor of the state Capitol in the governor’s suite, leaving some state health officials feeling marginalized.

Cuomo aides disputed that, saying the governor and Schwartz regularly speak with Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and his staff.

Zucker said in a statement that Schwartz “is a management expert, and his skills are critical to our vaccination program. This operation requires both public health knowledge and logistics expertise, and my senior staff and I talk to Larry multiple times per day.”

Jack Sterne, a Cuomo spokesman, also cited Schwartz’s “extensive experience in logistics, operations and management.”

“For over a year, Larry has been working day and night for free to serve New Yorkers during this critical time, and these attacks on him are unfair and unwarranted,” Sterne said. “As someone who is often in the room with Larry for these conversations, I can tell you that he values expert advice, is clear that public health is above partisanship, and has a singular goal of getting as many shots into arms as fast as humanly possible.”

Public health officials and area leaders say the Cuomo administration’s insular approach has meant it is hard to assess whether every community is equally benefiting from the state’s vaccination program, whether New York could be doing better, and how decisions are made.

New York’s overall vaccination rate of 11 percent is slightly below the national average of 11.8 percent, according to The Post’s coronavirus vaccine tracker, and cases of covid-19 are currently among the highest per capita in the country.

A Cuomo spokesman noted that nearly a quarter of all New Yorkers have received at least one dose, a rate higher than in some other large states. The state is currently administering a million doses a week and expects that number to increase, he said.

The state maintains an online dashboard that shows vaccine adoption rates by county, though it does not indicate where the vaccine doses are distributed. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for a breakdown of vaccines by geography and race.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day (R) said he has been unable to get clarity about why the state will not put a permanent vaccination site in his community between the Hudson River and the New Jersey border. He says he has repeatedly complained to the governor’s office and spoken multiple times with Schwartz.

“I don’t understand why, given the numbers that we have here, that we don’t have a state site here,” Day said.

Cuomo administration officials said mass-vaccination sites are based on geography and available space.

'Larry never says no'

Schwartz and Cuomo have known each other for decades, and the two are so close that Schwartz moved into the governor’s mansion last year for a period of time as he helped in the early days of the pandemic response. He is known as one of the governor’s longest-serving political aides and seen as someone who carries out Cuomo’s orders.

“He is extremely loyal to the governor. Larry never says no. Whatever you need Larry to do, Larry says yes,” said a longtime Cuomo ally who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their relationship. “When the governor called him and said, ‘We need you tomorrow to stand up the vaccine program,’ he was there.”

The selection of Schwartz to helm the effort — despite his lack of public health credentials — is emblematic of Cuomo’s tendency to rely on a small circle of aides he trusts, according to lawmakers and former aides.

“It’s a very centralized administration. It has always been a very centralized administration. They look to keep control close to the belt. This is par for the course,” said state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D).

Cuomo respects Schwartz’s intricate knowledge of state politics and his fastidious approach to tasks — making detailed, several-page lists on yellow pads, and checking them off one by one, according to people who know them. Others close to Schwartz say he also has a deep knowledge of the state’s budget and Albany power dynamics, and an impressive statewide Rolodex. He is Cuomo’s appointee on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board, the governmental body that controls much of mass transit in the New York region.

Schwartz is also willing to take on politically messy tasks, they said — such as the role he played in 2013 in limiting the activities of an anti-corruption commission empaneled by the governor when its investigative activities came too close to Cuomo and his allies.

Cuomo’s behavior created ‘hostile, toxic’ workplace culture for decades, former aides say

As a volunteer, the governor’s counsel has said, Schwartz is exempt from an ethics oath required of New York state public officers.

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, a Republican, said: “Cuomo has given Schwartz an off-the-charts amount of power. Is he a guru in vaccine distribution? No. So if the health commissioner is not capable of getting the vaccine out to counties, then what is going on here?”

“Larry Schwartz does not work for the state of New York,” McLaughlin added. “He should not be running anything at all. This is a huge issue that he is not a state employee and is not operating inside of the New York public officers’ law.”

Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said Schwartz “has abided by all ethics guidelines and his volunteer role presents zero conflicts.”

Schwartz signed his email correspondence with The Post using his title of “chief strategy officer” of OTG, an airport concessions company that has contracts at 10 major airports. Three are run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a powerful entity that Cuomo controls in conjunction with the governor of New Jersey.

In a 2016 SEC filing, OTG said a risk factor for the company is that “a significant portion of our revenues are derived from airports in the New York metropolitan area.”

People familiar with Schwartz’s role at OTG say he has extensively worked on New York area issues for the company and is viewed within OTG and the Port Authority as “Cuomo’s main guy,” according to an airline executive who has worked with him.

Schwartz said he is paid by the company even as he works “14 to 16 hours a day” as a volunteer for the state. Schwartz said he still performs some tasks for OTG but declined to specify them. “I am their chief strategy officer. That’s all I am going to say,” he said.

A spokesman for OTG declined to answer specific questions about Schwartz’s role but said the company is “very proud to have Larry volunteer his time to lead the state’s vaccine effort.”

Azzopardi said that staff have advised Schwartz on how to avoid conflicts of interest and sought information about his interactions with state entities.

“He has only been involved in situations where it could not present a conflict with his continuing work with OTG,” Azzopardi said.

Schwartz said he is able to separate his various roles. “I know how to multitask as well as understand my responsibilities on both a professional and personal level. I take both seriously and make sure that things aren’t ignored or forgotten,” he said during a recent phone interview as he was attending an MTA board meeting.

'Trial by fire'

Cuomo initially wanted Dennis Whalen, a former aide who works at a powerful New York hospital system, to run the vaccine distribution, but he was unable to do so for personal reasons, according to Azzopardi.

“Shortly thereafter, Larry Schwartz was asked to volunteer and he graciously accepted,” Azzopardi said.

Schwartz acknowledged that he immediately faced some challenges, having never worked on vaccines or in the public health arena.

“I came back to Albany about a week before the 1st delivery of the Pfizer vaccine arrived. It was trial by fire and I had to get up to speed fast enough so that I was helping and not impeding the process,” he wrote in an email.

On Dec. 14, six days after Schwartz’s appointment, the vaccine distribution task force met, according to three people with knowledge of the meeting. Schwartz was not present.

A few days later, the state announced a new strategy on vaccines — it would begin distributing doses to 10 hub hospital systems, instead of to counties directly.

The task force was blindsided, according to people familiar with the views of its members. Ouellette, the Albany dean, sent an email to other members inquiring about the new policy.

“I sent an email that raised questions about the rollout because I was concerned about its reliance on both the hospital hubs and technology and the inability of marginalized communities to get vaccines even when eligible,” Ouellette said in an interview. “My email suggested that the state look to the counties and to community-based organizations.”

Ouellette said the state eventually reversed course on the hub program and began giving vaccine doses directly to counties, and she applauded what she said have been improvements in recent months, calling the current vaccination speed “impressive.” State officials say they are now administering about 147,000 doses a day, up from about 75,000 four weeks ago.

“With anything new, like vaccines, there will always be a few bumps at the beginning and not everyone will be happy, but we have learned a lot since early December, and things are working well when it comes to getting shots in arms,” Schwartz said.

Still, the task force’s role has remained minimal. Schwartz has not sought advice from the group, according to people familiar with its work.

The Rev. Diann Holt, an advocate for maternal health who is also on the task force, said the group last met Feb. 10. She said that the meetings were largely about “updating us on what they wanted to update us on” and that she doesn’t recall contributing to discussions about vaccine distribution sites.

Asked about the lack of participation of the task force, Azzopardi said in a statement: “The Task Force provided valuable insight and helped inform both early and continuing distribution efforts.”

In statements to The Post, Schwartz said mass-vaccination sites are determined through discussions with the state’s outside consultants, Boston Consulting Group, and other members of the governor’s vaccine team whom he declined to identify. He said the factors considered include travel time to existing mass-vaccination sites, administration rates in a geographic area and the existence of other provider channels. The distribution of vaccine doses is based on a formula that looks at population, he said. The state did not provide the formula to The Post.

But Republican and Democratic county officials alike, who participate in weekly calls in which Schwartz fields concerns about the vaccine distribution plans, said it is often unclear how decisions are being made and whether vaccine doses are being distributed equitably across the state.

“What it ended up being was a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where counties would call each other and say, ‘What did you get?’ ” said Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus (R), adding: “It is being done in a CIA-clandestine-style process, which is the way they have been from the beginning.”

Leaders of the New York State Association of County Health Officials and the New York State Association of Counties, who wrote a letter to Schwartz chastising him for threatening to fine health officials, have complained that the state website provides no way for local health officials to review or correct data posted on the site.

And some of the decision-making appears ad hoc, local officials said. For example, on a March call, Schwartz told county officials to email him if they wanted doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and he would let them know what they would receive, according to people with knowledge of the conversation.

Marc Molinaro, the county executive in Dutchess County, a Republican who ran against Cuomo in 2018 and chairs the New York State County Executives Association, said county officials have received limited information from the state about the distribution.

“We have asked since the beginning for them to provide the methodology and be transparent with the distribution,” Molinaro said. “I can tell you it is not equitable. And because there is no transparency, there is no way to prove it or disprove it.”

Schwartz disputed the criticism from Republican county executives, calling it “misleading and not accurate.” He said that he is responsive to county officials and clear about the factors that determine distribution.

“I respect if they disagree with the process, but nobody can tell me they don’t understand the process,” Schwartz said.

Republican legislators in the state Senate have seized on Schwartz’s volunteer role in vaccine distribution and the revelation that he was assessing political support of Cuomo from county officials, and are now demanding an investigation with subpoena power. The effort has so far been blocked by Democrats.

“I will not rest until I get to the bottom of this,” state Sen. Edward Rath III (R) said after his motion for an investigation was rejected on procedural grounds Tuesday by the Local Government Committee.

Schwartz rejected the notion that politics have tainted the rollout of vaccines across the state.

“I have worked with all elected officials and governmental entities in a bipartisan way,” he said. “Party affiliation doesn’t matter when it comes to getting vaccines in people’s arms.”