Gov. Andrew Cuomo and secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa at a briefing last summer. Courtesy photo

New revelations that the state withheld nursing home death data because officials feared a federal investigation sparked outrage among local elected officials and renewed calls for investigations and stripping the governor of his emergency powers.

“The Department of Justice needs to immediately open an obstruction of justice investigation into Governor Cuomo and his administration,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said yesterday. “It’s now being reported there has been a direct admission of their nursing home coverup with the intent of blocking a DOJ investigation,” he said.

A top Cuomo administration official admitted to Democratic state lawmakers that the state withheld data from them after it received a letter from the Department of Justice last summer requesting information.

In a private video conference call with lawmakers Wednesday, Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, told lawmakers state officials “froze” after receiving the DOJ inquiry, because state officials “weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to (state legislators) …was going to be used against us.”

The recorded call was leaked to the N.Y. Post, which reported it Thursday night.

Yesterday, New York’s Republican congressional delegation wrote to Acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson requesting an investigation into obstruction of justice by the Cuomo administration.

For many months, the state resisted requests for data and information from family advocates, reporters and lawmakers and fought a Freedom of Information Law request from a government watchdog group.

“As suspected, the governor’s office was lying all along,” State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said yesterday.

“Their failure to provide nursing home data was intentional and an effort to obstruct justice. This is flagrant corruption,” Palumbo said. He called on Senate Democrats to join the Republican conference’s efforts to “subpoena the governor’s office and get answers for the families who lost loved ones and justice for all New Yorkers.”

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow) said DeRosa’s revelation shows the governor’s “callousness” and that he prioritizes politics over doing the job he was elected to do.

In the call with Democratic state senators, DeRosa explained the administration’s decision to withhold data sought by state lawmakers in August as a response to President Trump turning the issue into “a giant political football,” according to a transcript DeRosa released yesterday. She said the former president went after Democratic governors.

“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes…” and directed DOJ to do an investigation. She said a “political hack” at DOJ sent letters to Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“And basically, we froze,” DeRosa told them, according to the transcript, with the threat of a DOJ investigation looming.

The DOJ apparently never opened an investigation last year after requesting information from the state.

“All signs point to, they are not looking at this,” DeRosa told the lawmakers in the call. “They dropped it. They never formally opened an investigation. They sent a letter asking a number of questions and then we satisfied those questions and it appears that they’re gone. But that was how it was happening back in August,” DeRosa said.

DeRosa apologized to the lawmakers. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intent to put you in that political position with the Republicans,” she told them.

Cuomo has not yet publicly commented on DeRosa’s remarks.

DeRosa’s call with Democratic state senators, who were fuming over the political heat they took for the administration’s behavior, came after the state finally released long-sought data on the COVID-19 death toll among nursing home residents.

For months, the State Department of Health would not release data on deaths after nursing home residents were transferred to hospitals, saying that the data was still being audited. Family members, advocates and critics accused the state of splitting the data to suppress the total number of deaths. They accused the state of trying to cover up the impact of a controversial DOH guidance document issued March 25 requiring nursing homes to admit or COVID-positive people discharged from hospitals. The governor said the state was simply following CDC guidance, but in the face of backlash when the state policy became public, Cuomo on May 10 signed an executive order prohibiting nursing homes from admitting COVID-positive individuals. Cuomo insisted he was not reversing the controversial March 25 guidance and DeRosa said the two documents “co-exist.” But the guidance document soon disappeared from the state’s website. On May 12, Palumbo, then a member of the Assembly, called for an independent investigation into nursing home deaths from COVID-19.

The DOH began releasing the hospital death data only after a Jan. 28 report by State Attorney General Letita James concluded the department, by omitting hospital deaths, underreported the total nursing home fatalities by up to 50%.

Hospital deaths were counted in the overall total but not associated with nursing homes. In response to reporters questions after the State AG’s report was released, Cuomo said it didn’t really matter where they died.

“But who cares… died in a hospital, died in a nursing home. They died,” Cuomo said at a Jan. 29 media briefing.

A court on Feb. 3 ordered the administration to release the data sought by government watchdog Empire Center’s Aug. 3 FOIL request for the daily death count at nursing homes throughout the state. The DOH had delayed responding to the request and then fought a lawsuit Empire Center filed to compel production of the data it sought.

Last weekend, the state published data online revealing for the first time that more than 4,000 nursing home residents had died of COVID-19 in hospitals, bringing the death toll among nursing home residents to 13,217 people (as of Feb. 5).

The number of deaths in other adult care facilities — congregate care facilities that are not licensed skilled nursing facilities — leapt from 219 to 945. Until last weekend’s data dump, the state was not reporting any deaths in 91 of those facilities where the deaths had all occurred in hospitals.

Also for the first time last weekend, the state began disclosing COVID-19 deaths among residents in assisted-living facilities, revealing that 790 assisted-living residents had died.

The new data revealed a starkly different picture than had previously been painted by the administration, which had boasted of lower fatality rates in nursing homes than the majority of other states.

State lawmakers from both parties have called for stripping the governor of his emergency powers, in place since last March when he declared a state of emergency in New York in response to the pandemic.

Giglio yesterday renewed her call for removing the the governor’s emergency powers

Cuomo has shown “he cannot be trusted with the responsibility,” Giglio said. “It’s time for the people to get back in the driver’s seat,” she said. “We need answers.”

Assemblyman Fred Thiele, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has supported legislation that would limit emergency powers to 30 days unless extended by the legislature. He also supported a Republican amendment to a COVID relief bill that would have ended Cuomo’s emergency powers. Both measures failed to garner enough support to pass.

“[In] a democracy such extraordinary powers should not extend a minute longer than necessary,” Thiele said last month. “It is absolutely vital that we restore the legislature’s rightful role as a co-equal branch of government.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.