What a difference a year can make. For the better part of the last year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo saw himself become one of the preeminent members of the Democratic Party. In no small measure, this happened due to his perceived leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic in New York. While often clashing with New York City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, Mr. Cuomo embraced a wartime leadership persona. He fancied himself as the person responsible for making the tough decisions and keeping New York’s citizens informed of these necessary, if not always popular decisions, through daily press briefings, executive orders, and constant communication from the Governor’s press apparatus. While not universally agreed upon, Governor Cuomo’s leadership through the pandemic was largely lauded through Democratic circles, so much so that the Governor wrote and released a book in October of 2020 entitled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Cuomo’s confidence in his leadership during the pandemic was evident. During an interview on LIVE with Kelly and Ryan, he stated that the purpose of his writing the book was to make sure everyone knew how to get through the rest of the pandemic and prepare for the next virus. In his own words, “it was really incredible when you think about it; how unprepared this Country was and what we went through and the lessons we had to learn, and that’s frankly why I wrote the book. Cause we’re really at half time here, Ryan. Let’s learn the lessons of the first half because we have a whole second half.” He had the answers. He was the authority. Poignantly, the Governor added, “the number one leadership lesson is people have to inform themselves. There’s so much politics nowadays. There’s so much ugliness.”
Indeed, ugliness has surrounded the Governor in the months since his book’s release and his rise to national prominence during COVID-19. This ugliness has taken the form of two separate scandals which have pushed many within his party at varying times to call for either his resignation or his impeachment, including on the national level: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), New York’s Junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and up-and-coming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, as she is known in progressive circles; and members of New York State Government such as New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea- Stewart Cousins as NPR reported. The two scandals that have pushed the Governor to the brink of losing or relinquishing the role of Governor, which he has held since his election as Governor in 2010, are an alleged mischaracterization of nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and several sexual harassment allegations that have come to light in the foregoing weeks.
The first of these scandals started with a directive from the Governor’s Health Department, led by Howard A. Zucker, M.D., J.D., which unequivocally stated that “no resident shall be denied re-admission to the N.H. [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” The text of which was preserved by an NBC affiliate in Albany, the State’s Capitol, when the policy began to face intensifying scrutiny last year. The merits of the policy at the time aside, New York State released updated data on February 4, 2021, which can be found here. As the New York Times reported, at the heart of the scandal is the manipulation of numbers to make nursing home deaths appear to be fewer than reality by only reporting those deaths which occurred within the nursing homes themselves and not hospitals. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now investigating the falsification of data surrounding New York’s more than 15,000 COVID-19 related nursing home deaths (as counted by Long Term Care Community Coalition) and its policies giving immunity to facilities caring for COVID patients (possibly being motivated by a desire to shield political allies and donors according to reporting by The Guardian).
The second of the scandals surround allegations by several women that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed them. Just this week, a current employee, Alyssa McGrath, came forward with allegations that echoed the previous women’s complaints that Governor Cuomo has made unwanted physical contact with women, made inappropriate comments, and has leered at women. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Ms. McGrath is at least the fifth woman to come forward with such allegations against the Governor. On March 1, the New York State Attorney General’s Office released a statement that it had been granted permission to investigate the claims through independent counsel. This permission was given, pursuant to New York State Law, by the Governor’s Office through a letter signed by Beth Garvey Special Counsel and Senior Advisor to the Governor. New York State law calls for the Attorney General to have the authority to undertake such investigations “into matters concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice.“
While his office granted permission for the investigation to occur and has indicated it will cooperate fully, Governor Cuomo has remained steadfast in his denial of these allegations of sexual harassment. During his March 3, 2021, COVID-19 press conference, Governor Cuomo stated that “. . .wait for the facts to come out. I never touched anyone inappropriately. I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable, and if I did make people feel uncomfortable, which I now understand I have, I apologize for it.” Since then, more allegations have been levied, such as the one by Ms. McGrath. On a March 12, 2021 conference call, the Governor appeared defiant in his refusal to resign or succumb to the pressure of the outcry resulting from both scandals when he stated that particularly with regard to the sexual harassment allegations and the women’s credibility, “women have a right to come forward and be heard, and I encourage that fully. But I also want to be clear there’s still a question of the truth. I did not do what has been alleged. Period. I won’t speculate about people’s possible motives, but I can tell you as a former Attorney General [of the State of New York] who’s gone through this situation many times, there are often many motivations for making an allegation and that is why you need to know the facts. . .” Further, the Governor added, “I’m not going to argue this issue in the press that is not how it is done. That is not the way it should be done. . .There are facts and then there are opinions. . .but they are two different concepts. Politicians who don’t know a single fact but yet form a conclusion and an opinion are in my opinion reckless and dangerous.” Then attacking those calling for his resignation directly, the Governor continued, “[t]he people of New York should not have confidence in a politician who takes a position without knowing any facts of substance. That, my friends, is politics at its worst. . .people know the difference between playing politics, bowing to cancel culture and the truth.”
As of this writing, Governor Cuomo remains in his seat as the Governor of New York. He has not been impeached, and he has not resigned. However, with multiple ongoing investigations into serious allegations of misconduct by himself and his staff, the seat in which he sits will only continue to get hotter. Actions have previously been taken to amend the Governor’s executive and emergency powers in the wake of the scandals. The New York State Senate and Assembly as well as the Federal Government can take further action depending on the outcome of further investigation. The state and federal government’s efforts could lead to removal from office or other serious legal ramifications. For a leader once lauded as Governor COVID for his leadership during the crisis, how much a year can change.
Christopher Becker is a civil litigator practicing in New York. Christopher graduated from the University of Alabama’s School of Law in 2016. There, he was a Senior Editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review.