Questions are intensifying surrounding New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus task force and its handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Both Democrats and Republicans want answers, and now, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn are in the early stages of an investigation into the matter. The investigations will allegedly focus on the activity of some of the senior members of the governor’s task force. It is unclear whether that includes the governor himself. 

(AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

According to reports, the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s Office did not consider a criminal investigation until after Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to the Governor, explained on an early February video call to Democratic lawmakers that the Cuomo administration withheld vital information about nursing home deaths from COVID-19 to avoid prosecution by President Trump and the Department of Justice, who last August initiated an inquiry into nursing home deaths in New York and several Democratic-led states. In a shockingly frank admission, DeRosa stated, “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 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.”

DeRosa’s revelation and subsequent further explanation of her confession came on the heels of a press release on Jan. 28, and then a brutal 76-page report on Jan. 30 from New York Attorney General Letitia James stating that deaths from COVID-19 could be under-reported by as much as 50%.

In an announcement last April, Governor Cuomo declared a joint investigation into nursing homes with the Attorney General, setting up a hotline to field complaints. At issue before the investigation was a Mar. 25 directive from the State Dept. of Health ordering nursing home residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 back into those facilities. The order, which was repealed on May 8, stated, “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James

Earlier this year, the Cuomo administration issued a report disputing that the Mar. 25 directive caused the unusual number of deaths, concluding infected staff was the culprit. However, AG James’ report states differently. The report says, “These admissions may have contributed to increased risk of nursing home residents in facilities and subsequent deaths.” 

According to James’ report, her office separately investigated 949 of the hotline complaints and discovered staffing shortages at nursing homes, insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), and systematic failures across the board to follow proper quarantine protocols when dealing with sick residents and staff. The report also found that between Mar. 25 and May 8, 6,326 COVID-19 patients were sent back into nursing homes, resulting in 4,000 deaths. Overall, her investigation found that the state had heavily misrepresented the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths from 8,500 to the actual number, which is more than 15,000.

In a same-day response to the AG’s report, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement on Jan. 28 that there was no under-count by the state’s coronavirus task force, and squarely blamed nursing homes, stating, “All of this confirms that many nursing home operators made grave mistakes and were not adequately prepared for this pandemic and that reforms are needed.” 

Health Committee chair and assemblyman Richard Gottfried said of James’ report, “Tish James had earned the gratitude of every New Yorker, certainly, every New Yorker in a nursing home or with a loved one in a nursing home. It’s really scandalous what she has uncovered in terms of the State Health Department.”

The controversy created by James’ report led to a press conference earlier this week, where Cuomo reacted to the scandal and dismissed the matter of where nursing home deaths took place, saying, “Who cares [if they] died in the hospital, [or] died in a nursing home? They died.” 

The Empire Center, a right-leaning establishment in New York, has, for months, reached out to the New York Department of Health numerous times seeking “records of COVID-19-related deaths of residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, including those who died while physically outside of the homes.”  The group recently won a lawsuit to prompt the disclosure of more granular details on the death toll.

Angela Weiss/AFP

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, NYC Mayor Bill deBlasio threw his support behind an investigation into Cuomo, saying, “we need the truth.” The mayor said he supports the idea of forming an independent commission to probe claims Cuomo intentionally under-reported the death toll in nursing homes. He added, ‘It certainly is not just about looking backward. It’s about looking forward. We need to learn these lessons now—what happened here and what needs to be different in the future. These are our seniors; these are our elders. They were left in an incredibly vulnerable situation, and there was not enough accountability.’

Also, on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) issued a statement urging President Biden to permit Antoinette Bacon, the acting U.S. attorney in New York’s Northern District, to be assigned to investigate the Cuomo administration about its reporting of nursing home deaths. Noting a conflict of interest, Grassley revealed that Audrey Strauss, the U.S. attorney in New York’s Manhattan-based Southern District, is the mother-in-law of DeRosa and should not be involved in the investigation. Then, on Thursday, Feb. 18, Grassley joined Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and others on a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), calling for the Committee to investigate Cuomo’s COVID-19 cover-up. Other cosigners include Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

In the letter, the senators stressed the need for an open and transparent investigation. They outlined their expectation for Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for Attorney General, to commit to investigating Cuomo’s COVID-19 cover-up, declaring:

“The American people deserve to know the extent to which Governor Cuomo and his senior staff violated the civil rights of New York seniors, lied to the Department of Justice about their actions, and violated federal civil and criminal laws in the process.”