New York state lawmakers on Friday approved a bill that would significantly strip embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo of temporary emergency powers that he was granted last year to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The state Assembly passed the bill by a margin of 107-43, hours after the Senate approved the legislation in a 43-30 vote.
The Democratic governor suggested earlier this week that he will sign the bill, which would revoke Cuomo’s power to issue new orders related to coronavirus, while allowing current orders to remain in effect, albeit with great legislative oversight.
The effort to limit his power came as Cuomo deals with two major scandals: a cover-up of Covid nursing home death data by his administration and accusations by three women that he sexually harassed them.
“I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now. We certainly see the need for a quick response but also want to move toward a system of increased oversight and review. The public deserves to have checks and balances,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester County.
“This legislation creates a system with increased input while at the same time ensuring New Yorkers continue to be protected,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Cuomo has issued nearly 100 orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, according to debate in the Senate on Friday morning.
Sen. Andrew Lanza, R-Staten Island, on Friday complained that the bill would not prevent Cuomo from acting unilaterally and continuing directives he has issued under the emergency powers authorization.
Lanza, who said he would vote against the bill for that reason, blasted “one-man rule” and the effects from “when you have one man have absolute power over your lives” since last March.
“If I would have told anyone two years ago that we were going to stand by and let a governor to tell student athletes that they couldn’t play” or tell students they could not put on a play “people would say, you’re crazy, no way, no how is that happening,” Lanza said.
The move to strip Cuomo’s powers underscore what has been a growing rift between the governor and lawmakers from his own party.
Cuomo for years has been able to enforce his political will with less effective pushback from the Senate and Assembly than his predecessors faced.
In late January, Attorney General Letitia James said the Cuomo administration had underreported the number of Covid deaths related to nursing homes by up to 50%
“Many nursing home residents died from Covid-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in [the Department of Health’s] published total nursing home death data,” James said at the time.
On Thursday night, The New York Times reported that top aides to Cuomo last June rewrote a state Department of Health report to take out the fact that more than 9,000 nursing home residents as of that month had died of the coronavirus. The move came as Cuomo was starting to write a book about what at the time was his widely praised handling of the pandemic.
The Times report contradicts the recent claim by Cuomo’s aides that the death data was suppressed to keep the information from being used as a political weapon by the Justice Department, which at the time was under the control of Attorney General William Barr, a loyal ally of then-President Donald Trump. The Justice Department’s query for the data, however, came months after the Cuomo aides removed it.
The suppression of the nursing home data has perplexed many because it did not change, in any way, the official death tally for Covid in New York. Instead, the move undercounted deaths related to nursing homes while reporting those deaths elsewhere.
“Not only did they withhold the information, they changed the information,” Lanza said Friday.
“A lot of bad things happen when you give power to one man,” he said.
Cuomo’s special counsel Beth Garvey on Friday afternoon issued a lengthy statement on The Times article, suggesting there was no intent to mislead the public or lawmakers.
“To be clear, multiple times during the time the July 6 DOH report was being developed, public statements were made during the daily briefings and in the press regarding the existence of the data, but noting that the deaths were being counted in the facility where individuals died,” Garvey said.
“There were repeated public statements acknowledging the out of facility deaths were not being listed as a subset of nursing home deaths stemming from concerns related to potential for double counting and consistency and accuracy.”
Garvey said that no members of the governor’s staff “changed any of the fatality numbers or ‘altered’ the fatality data.”
Instead, she said, staff asked Health Department questions about the source of previously unpublished data, “to which there were not clear or complete answers,” and probed whether the data “was relevant to the outcome of the report.”
Then, Garvey said, “a decision was made to use the data set that was reported by the place of death with firsthand knowledge of the circumstances.”
Garvey said that decision “gave a higher degree of comfort in” the data’s “accuracy.”
Cuomo earlier this week refused to resign over claims by two former aides and a woman who worked in the Obama White House that he sexually harassed them.
But in his first public comments on the women’s allegations, he also said, “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional.”
The nursing home death data is the subject of a federal criminal investigation, while James is overseeing a probe of the women’s allegations.