Perhaps the biggest political scandal in America right now is playing out in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo is in a lot of trouble — and rightly so. The Democratic governor did not merely wildly mismanage his state’s response to the COVID-19 emergency, while netting himself a lucrative book deal and an Emmy. He did something worse.
In the middle of a public health emergency, he used his office to help one of his largest political donors shield itself from legal consequences as fifteen thousand nursing home residents died from COVID-19 — and then he and his administration underreported that death toll, helping the same donor.
We had been covering the story for months before it exploded this week. The scandal is a cautionary tale of hubris, megalomania, and corruption that left a literal mountain of preventable COVID-19 deaths in its wake. Now we are about to see whether a blue state’s democratic institutions can hold wrongdoers accountable, or whether America’s culture of impunity can once again protect the powerful from facing any consequences at all.
Amid a cacophony of demands for Cuomo to resign, the governor and his aides are frantically trying to cover up the basic facts of what happened, and that includes launching a Nixonian campaign of intimidation and retribution against Democratic lawmakers who have for months been sounding the alarm.
Two national news outlets today detailed Cuomo’s new campaign of retribution against one lawmaker in his own party who dared to ask questions about constituents and family members who died under Cuomo’s nursing home policies. Cuomo held a press conference to publicly berate the same Democrat, while another New York news outlet reported that other lawmakers are now facing threats.
For months, these legislators’ questions were ignored by a national media that has seemed far more interested in valorizing Cuomo than in reporting inconvenient facts. But those facts are worth reviewing, because they illustrate the direct link between the underreporting of nursing home deaths and the push for corporate immunity.
They also spotlight the very real human carnage that can result when an imperious, out-of-control politician is unwilling to engage in any contrition, self-reflection, or reform.
Fact 1: Cuomo’s Machine Raked in $2 Million From Industry Group
Cuomo’s political machine received more than $2 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), its executives, and its lobbying firms. The health care industry group also funneled more than $450,000 to members of the New York legislature in 2020.
The money that flowed from the group to these public officials in the middle of the pandemic was a significant increase from prior years.
Fact 2: Cuomo Helped Industry Group Shield Nursing Home Execs
Amid New York’s exploding COVID-19 death toll in April 2020, Cuomo’s budget included a provision shielding hospital and nursing home executives from legal consequences if their corporate decisions killed people during the pandemic.
GNYHA said it “drafted” the provision, which did not merely shield frontline health care workers from lawsuits, but also extended such liability protection to top corporate officials who make staffing and safety decisions.
Critics argued that shielding hospital and nursing home executives from the threat of lawsuits would remove a deterrent to cost-cutting, profit-maximizing decisions that endanger lives. They were ignored.
Fact 3: Cuomo’s Corporate Immunity Law Went National
Cuomo’s corporate immunity provision was quickly copied and pasted into other states’ laws and into Senate Republican legislation, in near word-for-word fashion. The liability shield spread from New York to other states, even as New York assemblyman Ron Kim released a report showing that states with liability shields were reporting higher nursing home death rates during the pandemic.
To date, twenty-seven states have now shielded nursing homes from lawsuits.
Fact 4: Cuomo’s Immunity Law Endangered Lives, According to AG
While nursing home executives were enjoying their liability shield, Cuomo’s office was vastly underreporting the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths, according to a report by New York attorney general Letitia James, who is considered a Cuomo ally. That report found that Cuomo administration data had undercounted nursing home deaths by 50 percent.
James’s report also linked the high rate of nursing home casualties directly to Cuomo’s corporate immunity law.
“The immunity laws could be wrongly used to provide any individual or entity from liability, even if those decisions were not made in good faith or motivated by financial incentives,” noted the report, adding that the provisions “provide financial incentives to for-profit nursing home operators to put residents at risk of harm by refraining from investing public funds to obtain sufficient staffing to meet residents’ care needs, to purchase sufficient PPE for staff, and to provide effective training to staff to comply with infection control protocols during pandemics and other public health emergencies.”
Fact 5: Cuomo’s Top Aide Admitted Withholding Info
Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted that Cuomo’s administration not only withheld information about nursing home deaths, but did so in order to preemptively avoid political and legal consequences.
“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 (state legislators), and what we start saying, was going to be used against us,” DeRosa told New York legislators last week.
DeRosa’s father, brother, and sister are employed at one of the lobbying firms that represents GNYHA, the health care industry group that funneled millions to Cuomo’s political machine and spearheaded the corporate immunity law.
In the last few days, Cuomo has refused to apologize or support any serious effort to fix things. Instead, he is deploying his political machine against Democratic legislators who have been bravely demanding answers.
For instance, when Democratic state senator Alessandra Biaggi said she was concerned about a potential link between GNYHA campaign cash and Cuomo’s corporate immunity law, Cuomo deployed his spokesperson to attack her.
“Immunity during the pandemic for hospitals and nursing home workers was passed in the budget with a majority of the senator’s senate and assembly colleagues voting for it, many of them taking contributions from the health care interests that were affected,” said the Cuomo staffer. “While she is damning her fellow legislators with wild assertions, the governor is not influenced by contributions and has never been. On the merits, different immunity laws were passed by states all over the country, as well as the federal government.”
Left unsaid: Cuomo’s own immunity legislation became the basis for other states’ own immunity laws.
Similarly, both CNN and the New York Times are now reporting on allegations that Cuomo made enraged threats against Kim, the Democratic lawmaker who chairs the New York Assembly’s committee. And CNN reports that “threats were made against those who are considering a vote (for Kim’s legislation) to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers” after recent revelations of Cuomo withholding casualty information from government officials. (A senior Cuomo adviser has now released a statement denying those threats and questioning Kim’s credibility.)
Kim’s uncle died of presumed COVID-19 in a nursing home. He told us that the public must understand that the undercounting of nursing home deaths and the corporate immunity law are not two separate issues — they are part of one large scandal in which New York’s governor prioritized protecting his political sponsors rather than the public interest.
Noting that lawmakers were considering legislation in August to rescind corporate immunity, Kim said Cuomo’s moves to hide information deprived lawmakers of necessary information at precisely the time they could have reformed the law to hold nursing home companies accountable.
“If they shared all the data, we would have passed different policies,” Kim said. “We would have gone in a different direction. We could have repealed legal immunity entirely. If we had the full data set, I think we had a much stronger argument to repeal.”
But the data was not forthcoming. It was hidden, which ended up serving the interests of the lobby group that dumped more than $2 million into Cuomo’s political machine. That machine is now being deployed to vilify Kim, Biaggi, and other Democrats who dare to demand answers about their constituents who were killed by COVID-19.
This burgeoning scandal and cover-up evokes memories of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, and his infamous declaration that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Four decades later, Joe Biden’s Justice Department, state law enforcers, and Albany legislators will now decide whether that same ideology of lawlessness and impunity will continue to extend not only to nursing home and hospital executives who’ve avoided consequences for a gruesome COVID-19 death toll, but also to the state governor who helped them get away with it.