Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed disbelief and outrage after news broke that the governor’s top aide privately admitted the Cuomo administration intentionally withheld the number of COVID-19 related nursing home deaths.
“I was completely shocked,” Republican Senator Sue Serino said. “I have never seen anything like this before.”
“I was appalled and alarmed at the same time,” Republican Senator Joe Griffo said.
“I was shocked, angry, frustrated,” Democratic Senator Jeremy Cooney said.
“This is my seventh year, my fourth term, and I’ve never felt such outrage with the governor,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said. “This is more than just a scandal.”
On Friday, lawmakers came out in full force calling for an emergency session to rescind the governor’s emergency powers they granted him last year during the pandemic, that give him broad powers to override any local and state law.
Republican lawmakers are also calling for oversight hearings and for the Department of Justice to investigate the state’s handling of nursing homes.
“There is clear evidence of gross misconduct and it cannot stand,” Senator Ortt said. “Everyone involved has to be held accountable, investigated and prosecuted if necessary.”
Fourteen Senate Democrats issued a joint statement saying, “It is clear that the expanded emergency powers granted to the governor are no longer appropriate.”
Democratic Senator Jeremy Cooney who joined in on this statement said lawmakers have been pressing the health department to release this data for months, “They’ve sent letters, put it in writing, made phone calls, sent emails, sent text messages, and it’s been silence and that’s not appropriate when we have a co-equal branch of government in New York.”
Back in August, numerous Democratic Lawmakers wrote an official letter to the health department, asking for the number of COVID-19 related nursing home deaths to be released.
The letter gave the health department three weeks to respond.
Officials finally responded, six months later after this closed door meeting with select Democratic lawmakers.
However, in the transcript provided by the administration, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa told lawmakers, “We went to the leaders and we said to the leaders, can we please pause on getting back to everybody until we get through this period and we know what's what with the DOJ?”
Both Senate and Assembly Democratic spokespersons responded saying that these discussions with the administration happened at the staff level.
Once leadership was told about this conversation, they said they continued to press for the release of this information.
Senator Joe Griffo, who formerly held a leadership position, says that is very unlikely leaders were not involved.
“Not when you’re talking about something so significant and important,” Senator Griffo said. “I think there is a lot of backpedaling that is taking place right now because people don’t want to take ownership and accountability.”
Some Republican lawmakers are now calling for legislative leaders to step down until an investigation is conducted.
“The state’s ethics committee should be able to probably have the ability to temporarily ask these chairs to step down until the investigation is done,” Senator Serino said. “As I’ve said all along we need that full investigation now more than ever when you see this information and this cover-up. And especially at a time when public trust is so important.”
“Their lack of action is insulting and their comments are salt in the wound,” Minority Leader Ortt said.
Mike Murphy, the communications director for the state Senate Democratic Conference, responded to this move by Senate Republicans saying, “We are not going to take advice from a conference that elected a leader who has been charged with crimes in the past.”
Assemblyman John McDonald, who was in this closed door meeting with the Cuomo administration, says original reports took this conversation out of context and officials needed to delay in releasing this data while they handled a federal probe.
He also emphasized that nursing homes were reporting this data in numerous different ways, making it hard for the health department to track down.
“The bottom line is everything needed to be put on the sideline to respond to the federal government’s inquiry,” Assemblyman McDonald said. “Which is actually appropriate. The way I read the Post article was that this was an intended cover-up and I don’t really agree with that.”
Democratic conferences in both houses met on Friday to discuss potentially rolling back the governor’s emergency powers,
Assemblyman McDonald says he supports this move.
“We’re looking to see where we can limit those executive authorities and that’s something I support,” McDonald said. “That’s something we are collectively working on.”
Michael Whyland, communications director for the state Assembly Democratic Conference. wrote a statement in regards to this meeting, saying, “Members recently expressed a desire to understand gubernatorial powers during ordinary times and extraordinary times. They were notified of today's member conference earlier in the week to provide an overview of these powers.
The powers granted to the governor at the beginning of the pandemic to deal with this unprecedented healthcare crisis are set to expire in two months. We will continue to discuss the issue and will act responsibly with the best interests of the people of the State of New York in mind.”
Back in March 2020, while the pandemic was sweeping across the state, the Legislature gave Governor Cuomo broad emergency powers to override any local or state law.
These emergency powers expire on April 30.