We all knew the Cuomo administration was deliberately withholding information about COVID deaths in nursing homes.
But we didn’t know until Thursday the extent the administration went to cover up the real figures, and we didn’t know the true political motivations behind hiding this vital information from nursing home residents, family members, legislators and the citizens of New York.
It’s even more nefarious, and even less excusable, than first thought.
On Thursday, details of a conversation between top Cuomo administration officials and Democratic legislative leaders revealed Cuomo’s team “froze” in the face of a potential federal investigation, purposely stonewalling our elected representatives in the Legislature and repeatedly delaying Freedom of Information Law requests for the data.
“Because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the [federal] 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,” the governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, was quoted in The New York Post telling lawmakers.
Not only were they worried about the possibility of a federal investigation, they also were apparently worried about getting hammered by President Trump should the information leak out.
Imagine refusing to release life-and-death information just to avoid negative tweets.
The rationale for secrecy is far more than just political cowardice.
It also demonstrates that they knew how damaging the information would be once they released it, which makes their deliberate cover-up of the data even more damning.
This new information into the inner workings of the decision to keep the information secret demonstrates a blatant violation of the public’s trust, and potentially the obstruction of justice of state and federal investigations into the deaths.
Now that we know what really motivated the secrecy, what do we do about it?
There’s a scene in the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian” in which a group of rebels is sitting around talking about the need to take action against the Romans. When they’re suddenly told that their friend Brian has just been arrested, the group’s leader announces, “This calls for immediate discussion!” and they resume their meeting.
So far, that’s how the Legislature has treated the Cuomo administration’s handling of the entire COVID crisis.
It hasn’t just been true of the nursing home situation. The Legislature has also been largely absent when it comes to the governor’s decisions on business closures and reopenings, edicts about arrests for large family gatherings, issues involving religious gatherings, and the administration’s refusal to release information about state money being withheld from schools and local governments.
All throughout the crisis, the Legislature has appeared content to cede its power to the governor, letting Cuomo take both the glory and the heat.
Hearings last year into the nursing home situation produced no real answers and brought no real consequences for the virtual lack of cooperation by the administration.
Despite earlier calls for investigations and hearings, along with a growing clamor for the Legislature to withdraw the special powers it granted Cuomo last year to singlehandedly manage the crisis, the response to an ever-growing number of questions about the administration’s decision-making has been largely talk.
Enough is enough.
The legislative leaders in both houses, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, need to stop covering for the Cuomo administration and start representing their constituents. This is not the time for partisanship.
They need to set up hearings and issue subpoenas if necessary so that Cuomo officials can’t refuse to participate or delay their testimony.
If malfeasance or incompetence is found (a likely outcome), they need to have the political courage to go against their Democratic counterpart in the executive branch and impose whatever sanctions are within their authority to issue.
We see what happens when actions come without consequences.
Lawmakers also need to take the steps necessary to rescind the governor’s emergency powers and start taking more control over the crisis.
The coronavirus outbreak is reaching its one-year anniversary. There’s now plenty of information out there on how to manage, and not manage, the crisis.
The legislative leadership certainly can take a more active role in managing the roll-out of the vaccines, the reopening of businesses and schools, the budget implications and the eventual management of the post-crisis period.
That is, after all, what we elect them to do.
The state comptroller and the attorney general should also consider their own investigations.
It also might be time for Congress and the federal Justice Department to intervene to ensure that no federal laws were broken.
Employing some or all of these resources is necessary to ensure the state’s coronavirus crisis response is being managed effectively, honestly and transparently.
We now know for certain what many suspected — that the Cuomo administration can’t be trusted to manage the crisis by itself or to keep state and federal authorities, legislators and the public informed about its activities.
The time for immediate discussion is over.