CAPITAL REGION — If the COVID-19 vaccine “czar” in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration was making phone calls last week to judge whether the embattled governor is losing political support, few political leaders in the Capital Region were involved.
The New York Times and Washington Post reported Sunday that long-time Cuomo aide Larry Schwartz — who is overseeing the state’s vaccine distribution efforts — made calls last week to county executives to ask about their level of support for Cuomo, who is facing calls for his resignation and an impeachment investigation following complaints about possible sexual harassment of young female staffers.
One unnamed executive was concerned enough that support for Cuomo could be linked to vaccine supply to file a notice with state ethics officials. A lawyer for Cuomo denied Schwartz did anything wrong, but a good government group faulted Cuomo for relying on “loyalists” like Schwartz in fighting the year-old pandemic.
It appears the Schwartz calls were limited to elected Democratic county executives, without appointed county administrators or Republican elected executives being consulted.
Schenectady County manager Rory Fluman, who holds an appointed position, said he didn’t get a call from Schwartz last week about Cuomo, although he has talked to vaccine distribution leader and Cuomo advisor Larry Schwartz two or three times in the last few months, as the state began rolling out vaccines to county health departments. Those calls haven’t touched on politics, he said, and within the parameters of vaccine being in short supply, he says the county has been treated well.
“I don’t think any county has been treated fairly, but that’s because there’s such a shortage of vaccine,” said Fluman, who manages the county for a Democratic-controlled County Legislature.
Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy, also a Democrat, got a call that “briefly” asked about support for Cuomo, the Times Union reported — but the executive said no link was made to vaccine distributions. Another Democrat, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, was also called, Rochester-area media reported on Monday. In a further sign of how support for Cuomo is eroding, Bello on Monday called on Cuomo to resign, local media reported.
Capital Region Republican county leaders, much less likely to have warm feelings for Cuomo regardless of scandal, don’t seem to have been called. One of them, Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort, did not get a call, according to a spokesperson.
A spokesman for Saratoga County, which is also Republican-controlled, said no one at the county received a call from Schwartz.
Any calls to and comments by county-level leaders come within a context of counties generally feeling their two decades of public health planning for pandemic inoculations were ignored by the Cuomo administration in the early stages of vaccine distribution — when the state set up its own mass-distribution system. But county public health officials now feel they’re generally being treated more fairly.
But all counties, regardless of their political leadership, are now receiving a weekly supply, and are holding community clinics to administer the vaccines.
Beth Garvey, a special counsel to Cuomo, said Monday that vaccine distribution is being done using objective criteria, and Schwartz in making calls did not violate ethical guidelines.
“Vaccine distribution in New York is based on objective criteria to ensure it matches eligible populations, ensure equity, and ability to rapidly administer shots in arms,” Garvey said in a statement Monday afternoon. “To be clear, Larry’s conversations did not bring up vaccine distribution — he would never link political support to public health decisions. Distorting Larry’s role or intentions for headlines maligns a decades long public servant who has done nothing but volunteer around the clock since March to help New York get through the COVID pandemic. Any suggestion that Larry acted in any way unethically or in any way other than in the best interest of the New Yorkers that he selflessly served is patently false.”
Schwartz, a former secretary — in effect, chief of staff — to the governor, left Cuomo’s staff in 2015 to go to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but he returned to Albany as a “volunteer” to Cuomo last March, to work on the state’s COVID response.
Whether Schwartz’s conduct was unethical or not, good government group Common Cause said it showed the flaws in how Cuomo has responded to the pandemic through a series of executive actions, suspended parts of laws and limited the state legislature’s involvement.
“Governor Cuomo invited his former advisors to assist in the pandemic response, circumventing direct conflicts of interest by bringing them on as volunteers rather than paid employees,” said Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner. “However, it’s been over a year now, and there’s no longer an emergency to justify publicly unaccountable advisors operating with the full authority of the state; especially when those advisors, like Larry Schwartz, are valued primarily for their loyalty rather than any public health expertise.”
As the possible sexual harassment scandal began to brew around the third-term governor a couple of weeks ago, a growing number of members of the state Legislature have called for Cuomo to resign, and the Assembly has started an impeachment investigation. A majority of the New York congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, also called for him to resign last Friday.
Cuomo has said he won’t resign, and any judgment should await the findings of an investigation being conducted by Attorney General Letitia James’ office.
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