ALBANY — Federal prosecutors and the FBI are probing the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 crisis, according to a report Wednesday.
The U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York has launched an investigation focusing on the work of some of the senior members of the governor’s coronavirus task force, the Albany Times Union first reported.
The probe comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces growing criticism over the state’s handling of elder care facilities amid the pandemic and an aide’s admission to lawmakers that the state withheld information from legislators and the public out of fear the Trump administration would use it as political fodder.
Some members of Congress also want answers. Late Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and several of his GOP colleagues demanded the Senate Judiciary Committee launch an investigation into the Cuomo administration’s nursing home response, saying the “American people deserve to know” whether the governor “violated federal civil and criminal laws” by allegedly withholding data about COVID-19 deaths.
“That so many people needlessly lost their lives because of the failed policies of Governor Cuomo’s administration — an administration that many have lauded over the past year — is tragic and deserves a full investigation and accounting,” Cruz and eight Republicans senators wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Lawmakers, good government groups and reporters have been asking the state to release a full tally of seniors who died for months.
The governor said the delay was in part due to the state’s dealing with a federal inquiry by the Department of Justice.
“In retrospect, we should have prioritized providing more information,” Cuomo said during a press briefing at the State Capitol on Monday. “No excuses: I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge. I take responsibility. We should have provided more information faster.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for oversight hearings and investigations in recent days.
In response to allegations of a cover-up and calls for probes and even impeachment, the governor said that “there’s nothing to investigate.”
A report released last month by state Attorney General James found the death toll at nursing homes was undercounted by as much as 50% since the state Department of Health failed to include those who died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from long-term care facilities.
Hours after that report was released, the state came out with new data that showed an additional 3,800 deaths — nursing home residents who died in hospitals. In total, more than 15,000 people have died from coronavirus in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
The previous official figure from the state was under 9,000.
Senior Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi told The Times Union that the DOJ “has been looking into this for months. We have been cooperating with them and we will continue to.”
Calls for an outside investigation grew into a chorus last week after top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa told state lawmakers that the administration “froze” when asked for the true number of nursing home deaths out of fear the information would be “used against us” by the Trump administration.
The state was also ordered to release more complete data regarding nursing home deaths by a judge who ruled officials were stonewalling a Freedom of Information request from conservative watchdog group the Empire Center.
For months, critics have also questioned the governor’s team over a since-rescinded DOH policy that ordered nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients if they had the ability to care for them.
Cuomo and his top officials have repeatedly argued that the controversial order was based on federal guidance and did not lead to any upticks in infections in elder care facilities.
The governor bristled at the accusations this week, lamenting what he said was the fact that critics were able to control the narrative while he and his team were busy managing a crisis. He said their silence and failure to release the data requested by lawmakers six months ago created a “void.”
“I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void,” he said Monday. “When we didn’t provide information it allowed press, people, cynics, politicians to fill the void.
“When you don’t correct this information you allow it to continue, and we created the void,” he added.
Daily News staff writer Chris Sommerfeldt contributed to this story.