A wise old newspaper editor used to talk of arrogant politicians caught in a scandal as being “hoisted by their own petard.”
Loosely translated, it means being blown up by one’s own bomb, or harmed by a disaster of one’s own making.
More literally, a petard is a metallic or wooden device filled with gunpowder that was used by 16th century armies to blow open heavy doors and gates.
Both interpretations are apt metaphors for what Gov. Andrew Cuomo is experiencing right now.
A bomb of the governor’s own making is blowing open the doors to the administration and revealing other actions by himself and his staff that might ultimately lead to his political demise or even legal trouble.
Most titillating, of course, is the scandal that erupted last week when the second of two former aides came forward with allegations that the governor had inappropriate encounters with them in the workplace, leading to allegations of sexual harassment. Later, a photo appeared from a wedding in which the governor was seen placing his hands on the face of a woman who claimed he made unwanted sexual advances toward her.
If the allegations are true, the governor has no one to blame but himself for his conduct, particularly in the workplace.
He knows the rules because he practically wrote them as part of his efforts a few years ago to mandate sexual harassment training in the workplace. The governor being no dummy, we assume he was aware he was breaking them, but went ahead and did it anyway.
The governor held a press conference on Wednesday in which he offered an awkward apology and the implausible explanation that he wasn’t aware he had offended these women. But if he did offend them, he said, he was sorry.
The harassment allegations have led to the state attorney general’s office initiating an investigation into the governor’s conduct.
That news temporarily distracted the public’s attention from a previous scandal, one with more life-and-death consequences, in which the governor’s office for months withheld data relating to covid-related deaths at nursing homes.
At first, it appeared to be a simple enough case of the governor’s office stonewalling the release of information from the public to avoid a bad news cycle. State government does that all the time.
That’s bad enough.
But it turns out, according to reports from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, that the alleged attempt to hide information about the nursing home situation went much deeper and was more nefarious.
According to the news articles, top members of the governor’s staff actually rewrote, or at the very least had a hand in modifying a report on the nursing home situation issued by state health officials in July to exclude the full death count.
The administration’s original report indicated that more than 6,200 nursing-home residents had died, when the actual figure it turns out was closer to 10,000.
The report, which was met by the media and government watchdog groups with great skepticism, largely absolved the administration from blame for the deaths.
The Times and Journal both reported Thursday that the changes in the report sought by the governor’s office led to bitter exchanges with health officials in his own administration.
So now we’re not just talking about withholding information temporarily as a delay tactic for bad news.
We’re talking about purposely manipulating information that could have been used to alert the public, nursing homes administrators, family members and lawmakers to the actual extent of the problem and that could have been used to come up with better solutions to the situation more quickly and perhaps prevent more illness and death.
More scathing is the indication that the report was being altered, in part, so that it didn’t interfere with the release of Gov. Cuomo’s new book, in which he touted his response to the coronavirus crisis. That makes it more than about ego. It makes it about money.
The latest news report is likely to trigger another investigation, perhaps from the attorney general or the state Legislature, where even members of the governor’s own political party are becoming emboldened to challenge him.
The nursing home incident, even before the latest revelations, opened the door to other allegations about the conduct of the governor and those in his office.
Last month, a state legislator said Cuomo called him at home one night to berate him after the assemblyman was quoted criticizing a report that the administration had deliberately withheld information about the nursing home situation from state lawmakers.
That led to more stories from other state lawmakers, journalists and others who said they’d also been subject to the wrath of the governor and/or his staff when they’ve dared to speak up against him.
The governor’s own criticism of others who found themselves under similar scrutiny are also coming back to haunt him. When state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was accused of violence against two romantic partners, Cuomo called on him to resign. Yet Cuomo so far refused to resign under somewhat similar circumstances.
And we’re not even getting into past issues, such as the Buffalo Billion economic redevelopment bid-rigging scandal that led to several convictions, and the bribery scandal before that which resulted in the conviction of one of Cuomo’s top former aides. Expect those situations to get renewed scrutiny in the coming days and weeks.
Much still needs to be learned about Gov. Cuomo’s recent conduct. But the news coming from the governor’s office the last couple of weeks is an indication of what happens when the doors of secrecy are blown open.
If these allegations, on their own or in combination, lead to the governor being forced from office by resignation, impeachment or the next election, he’ll have no one to blame but himself for the damage done by the petard.