The consistent presence of Andrew Cuomo on the news throughout the pandemic and especially in the last few months might give the impression that he is more than “just” the Governor of New York. An interesting side effect of the pandemic and Trump Administration is that so many barely known political names are now prominent faces and voices in the daily news cycle. Politicians newly found celebrity status tends to feed their egos, though none more than Governor Cuomo who is currently juggling two scandals.
The first scandal: The Associated Press reported over 9,000 COVID positive seniors were transferred from hospitals to nursing homes to continue treatment, likely spreading the virus to a vulnerable population that should have been fairly easy to protect in their nursing home bubble. In late March of 2020, New York hospitals pushed for the transfer policy during the peak of the coronavirus to make room for incoming patients. Because of the urgency of the situation, nursing home stakeholders were never consulted, even though the vulnerability of the nursing home population was well documented before the policy was put in place.
Days after the policy, Cuomo added a provision in the state budget limiting the ability of patients to sue nursing homes and hospitals, something both institutions asked for. The transfer policy caused such a stir last year it was rescinded in May, but not before the damage was done. While the policy was a devastating decision, the scandal was born with the discovery that Cuomo and his Health Department deliberately underreported the number of transfers to nursing homes by 40%, as well as the death tolls from the nursing homes.
Empire Center for Public Policy sued Cuomo for data regarding the policy and found a statistically significant increase in resident deaths in nursing homes that accepted hospital transfers. Last week, Cuomo’s secretary, Melissa DeRosa, spoke during a video call with Democratic leaders, admitting they “froze” out of fear that the data “would be used against them”, specifically by the Trump Administration. At the time President Trump had already been sounding the alarm that there were issues with the handling of the coronavirus in New York, including the transfers to nursing homes, while a medical ship sat empty. The Department of Health acknowledged 8,711 nursing home deaths when the actual count was 12,743 (Jan 2021). Last month the count was over 13,000.
In a press conference, Cuomo remarked
“Who cares [if they] died in a hospital, died in a nursing home? They died”.
Cue the new scandal.
Nothing seems to wash thousands of senior deaths off your hands than a well-timed sexual harassment scandal. In the last two months, three women have come forward with complaints of sexual harassment against Governor Cuomo. The stories of the women and Cuomo’s reaction quickly eclipsed the coverage of the nursing home scandal. During one 3 minute story on the Today Show, the anchor spoke about the nursing home scandal for 10 seconds compared to 38 seconds devoted solely to the sexual harassment allegations, the remainder of the piece general information about the Governor. Adding to the creep factor, Cuomo’s targets, Lindsey Boylan (32 at the time), Charlotte Bennett (25), and Anna Ruch (31 at the time) are of similar age to Cuomo’s own daughters, Cara and Mariah, both 26, and Michaela (23).
Lindsey, a former Cuomo aide, married woman, and mother, was the first to speak out. She shared her story in a blog on Medium.com opening with a request from the Governor: “Let’s play strip poker”. The suggestion was made while in the air on a taxpayer-funded flight as they sat facing each other with, as she describes, “our knees almost touched. His press aide was to my right and a state trooper behind us”.
Lindsey described a culture in the Cuomo administration where sexual harassment and bullying were not only condoned but expected. When Cuomo’s name was being floated as a candidate for U.S. Attorney General, she decided the world need to know the truth: “Andrew Cuomo abused his power as Governor to sexually harass [her], just as he had done with so many other women.” What followed, at first, was an attempted smear campaign, but then more voices with a story to tell, and not just from women. Assemblymember Ron Kim spoke about intimidation and bullying from Cuomo and his aides. Mayor de Blasio said, “the bullying is nothing new”.
For Lindsey, the harassment started in 2016, as the new Chief of Staff for the state economic development agency, when her boss told her that Cuomo “had a crush” on her. She was then told by the Director of the Governor’s Offices, Stephanie Benton, that the Governor suggested she look up pictures of Cuomo’s ex, Lisa, because he thought they could be sisters but Lindsey was “the better-looking sister”. Cuomo then started calling her “Lisa” in front of colleagues.
Cuomo would go out of his way to touch her, creepy but not scary, until Lindsey was summoned to the Capitol during a holiday event because the Governor wanted to see her and she was escorted into the office, door shut, alone with Cuomo. In the office, the Governor smirked as he showed her a cigar box, saying it was a gift from President Clinton. In another incident, while leaving his office, Cuomo stepped in front of her and kissed her on the lips. Lindsey explains that the Governor’s behavior was normalized by his mostly female senior staff, including Secretary Melissa DeRosa. Lindsey’s bravery made space for other women to tell similar stories.
One of those women is Charlotte Bennett, a former Cuomo aide who recently left her post last November. Cuomo quizzed her about her sex life after finding out she was a survivor of sexual assault, wanting to know if she was monogamous in relationships and if she ever had sex with older men. She left the conversation understanding that the Governor wanted to “sleep with [her]”. Cuomo brushed off the event as “trying to mentor her.”
His latest accuser, Anna Ruch, didn’t even know Cuomo when she found her face in his hands at the 2019 wedding of her friends, the groom an aide of Cuomo’s. The Governor was “working the room” after toasting the couple when he approached Anna who thanked him for saying such nice things about her friends. Cuomo put his hand on her lower back, which she immediately removed, leading the Governor to say she seemed “aggressive” as he placed his hands on her cheeks while asking if he could kiss her loud enough for bystanders to hear. Anna pulled away and turned her head, she has a photo documenting the event.
Cuomo excuses the behavior, saying kissing is his customary greeting “By the way, it was father’s way of greeting people,” referring to former NY Governor Mario Cuomo.
While the allegations against Cuomo are disgusting and certainly create a scary situation for the women he targets, how do these stories steal the headlines from 4,000 dead seniors hidden by his administration?
Bottom line, Cuomo is a gross, power-abusing pig and also, an inept leader in a crisis. He should resign for the sexual harassment charges and he should be impeached for his role in the nursing home scandal.
But we have to ask ourselves, how do people so disgusting and morally deficient move so easily to top leadership positions and remain there so long? What about our government attracts the worst possible candidates and elects, frequently, the worst possible leaders? Why do the thoughtful, local leaders with solid values and good intentions fall by the wayside as they work up the political ladder?
Meanwhile, Cuomo shouts over his shoulder as he stuffs thousands of senior skeletons into the proverbial closet, “Sorry for whatever pain I caused… I now understand that I made people feel uncomfortable.”