New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that he did not hide COVID-19 nursing home deaths as Democrats joined Republicans in demanding answers, putting pressure on the Biden administration to investigate the spiraling scandal.
Mr. Cuomo said he was guilty of creating an informational “void” that was filled by “conspiracy theories” after delaying the state Legislature’s request for nursing home data to prioritize an August request from the Justice Department.
“I am in charge. I take responsibility. We should have provided more information faster,” Mr. Cuomo said at a virtual press conference. “We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment and did not do a good enough job providing enough information. I take total responsibility for that.”
The Democratic governor said he informed state legislators that he had “paused” their request to address the Justice Department inquiry and insisted that “total death counts were always accurate. Nothing was hidden from anyone.”
“But we did create the void, and that created pain,” he said. “And I feel very badly about that.”
His comments, the first since a top aide said last week that the governor’s office withheld nursing home data, drew a heated response from state legislators who insisted they were never told about the Justice Department query.
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Mike Whyland, a spokesman for New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, said Cuomo staffers informed the speaker’s office that they needed more time to assemble the nursing home data but did not say why.
“Other than what was in the news, the Speaker had no knowledge of an official DOJ inquiry,” Mr. Whyland tweeted.
The uproar has put the Biden administration on the spot over demands for a Justice Department investigation into what House Minority Leader Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, called a “massive cover-up” of nursing home deaths after Mr. Cuomo’s March 25 order directing facilities to accept stable COVID-19 patients.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican, urged President Biden not to protect Mr. Cuomo from federal and state investigations into his handling of the pandemic.
“I want to see subpoenas at both the state level — the state Senate and state Assembly should issue subpoenas immediately — and I want the Department of Justice to launch an independent investigation,” Ms. Stefanik said Monday on Fox News.
“It’s a disgrace, and President Biden needs to keep to his promise that the Department of Justice will be independent from political pressure from Governor Cuomo, who is a Democrat.,” she said.
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The eight-member New York Republican congressional delegation called on acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson on Friday to take action after Cuomo secretary Melissa DeRosa disclosed that the governor’s office “froze” and delayed for months the release of nursing home death figures because of worries that the data would “be used against us.”
“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,” Ms. DeRosa said in a partial transcript released Friday.
Her admission, during a Thursday call with Democratic state legislators and first reported by the New York Post, also has prompted an erosion of Mr. Cuomo’s Democratic support.
Fourteen Democratic state senators joined Republicans in calling for Mr. Cuomo’s emergency pandemic powers to be revoked. State Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat, said Sunday that he wants a full investigation. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams pushed for federal action.
“Many months ago, I joined Borough President Eric Adams and a coalition of elected officials from across the country in calling for a Department of Justice investigation of city and state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — because justice must be pursued, regardless of party,” Mr. Williams, a Democrat, said in a Friday statement.
“I repeat that call now, under a new federal administration but out of the same moral obligation and with renewed moral outrage at the arrogance the Governor continues to show in making dangerous, misguided decisions and refusing to face the consequences,” he said.
Coincidentally, Mr. Biden met Friday with Mr. Cuomo and others, including Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, about state pandemic response, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said their discussion should not be viewed as a “stamp of approval.”
“The president hosted Gov. Cuomo and a bipartisan group of governors and mayors to the White House today to get their perspective from the front lines, not to give anyone a stamp of approval or to seek their stamp of approval, and to discuss the urgency of passing the American Rescue Plan,” Ms. Psaki said.
She was responding to a question about the withholding of information about nursing home fatalities.
“Gov. Cuomo is, of course, the governor of one of the largest states in the country, one of the places where the pandemic hit hardest, the earliest,” said Ms. Psaki. “And so it was important to have him as a part of the meeting.”
Ms. DeRosa sought Friday to clarify her comments. She said the Cuomo administration delayed its reply to state legislators about nursing home deaths to respond to a Justice Department inquiry last year.
“I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter. “We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ.”
Even so, the New York Republican Party on Friday called for Mr. Cuomo to be prosecuted and impeached over “what clearly amounts to federal obstruction of justice.” Others, including Republican Reps. Claudia Tenney and Nicole Malliotakis, said he should resign.
“The second most powerful person in state government and top aide to Governor Cuomo admitted on video to the premeditated and willful violation of state laws and what clearly amounts to federal obstruction of justice,” the state Republican Party said. “Andrew Cuomo has abused his power and destroyed the trust placed in the office of governor. Prosecution and impeachment discussions must begin right away.”
Mr. Cuomo was already on the hot seat after New York Attorney General Letitia James concluded in a Jan. 28 report that the state had undercounted COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes by as much as 50%. The investigation found the previously cited figure of 8,500 deaths was closer to 15,000.
More than 9,000 recovering patients were released into nursing homes under a March 25 directive from Mr. Cuomo, according to The Associated Press. The order was replaced on May 10. The original order can be found on the Wayback Machine website.
“No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” the March 25 order said. “NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
Ms. Stefanik warned that a lack of federal action on the Cuomo nursing home response would come back to haunt the White House.
“If there is no Department of Justice investigation into the Secretary to Governor Cuomo’s public admission of federal crimes,” she said Friday in a statement, “a stain will remain on the entirety of the Biden Administration.”