Ron Kim, a New York Democrat who’s called out Cuomo’s nursing home coverup for months, says it’s time for the governor to face the music

Anthony L. FisherSat, 20 February 2021, 7:07 pm

Assemblyman Ron Kim
Assemblyman Ron Kim speaks during a press briefing at the state Capitol in Albany, NY on June 8, 2020. AP Photo/Hans Pennink

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat representing part of Queens, has been one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s most vocal critics since the start of the pandemic.

In particular, Kim has criticized the Cuomo administration’s Health Department’s order to nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals, and the administration’s lack of transparency over the data related to nursing home deaths.

Over the past few weeks, New York’s attorney general released a report showing the state had undercounted the number of COVID nursing home deaths by about 50%, Cuomo senior aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a conference call with some New York Democrats that the administration “froze” out of fear of a DOJ investigation when the legislature requested nursing home data, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Cuomo to be stripped of the emergency powers he has held since the start of the pandemic.

Kim said Cuomo called him personally and threatened to “destroy” him if he did not amend his previous comments about what DeRosa had said on last week’s conference call. This week, a spokesman for the governor said Kim is “lying” about these allegations, and Cuomo accused Kim of accepting “unethical if not illegal” political donations.

Insider columnist Anthony Fisher spoke with Assemblyman Kim by phone on Friday about feeling “terrified” by the sounds of a screaming Cuomo, why the nursing home catastrophe hits him so personally, and why he thinks the Cuomo administration’s investigation of itself was “complete bullshit.”

This interview has been edited for length, context, and clarity.

A little more than a month into the pandemic in April 2020, you posted a video talking about the surge in deaths at nursing homes in Queens – which was the US’ COVID epicenter at the time.

What made you jump on this issue so early?

It was a very frantic, desperate email from a constituent. I spoke to her on the phone and by the next morning I met her at the nursing home to get to the bottom of what was going on. I emailed and called the nursing home director, but he wasn’t responding.

So I took a softer approach and told him we want to drop off some PPE for you. He came out and I started talking to him. He told me over a hundred people died and it hadn’t been reported. He didn’t know how to handle it, and the Department of Health hadn’t done anything to support him.

And that’s when I realized, “Holy shit. Something is happening and we need to get ahead of this. More people might die.”

That’s when I really started investigating what was going on. And during that time, a couple of articles came out that publicized the situation and people kept piling on texts, emails, Facebook [messages and tweets] telling me about other loved ones and citing similar situations.

The Cuomo administration’s Department of Health last summer investigated and cleared itself of any wrongdoing with regards to nursing home deaths.

What was your reaction to that report?

Oh, it was complete bullshit. Everybody knew it. How do you do a McKinsey self-audit on yourself? It’s ridiculous, it was the beginning of a coverup.

That’s when we started to demand an independent commission because these guys were not acting in good faith. I introduced the bipartisan commission with Republicans in the Senate, because we needed a completely independent commission to thoroughly investigate what was going on – with full subpoena power.

The governor said just the other day that if members of the legislature wanted the records so badly they could have just subpoenaed him. Republicans certainly wanted to do it. Why didn’t it happen?

The [Democratic] speaker and the majority leader have those powers. And Gov. Cuomo knows he has a lot of influence on the leadership. It’s a distraction. And I think at this point, we know those words are empty and we’re moving toward an impeachment process, because I think most members have had enough.

After the DOH report came out, Cuomo rarely addressed the nursing home catastrophe at all. But when he did, he’d suggest that even asking questions about nursing home deaths made you the tool of a coordinated right-wing smear campaign.

As a progressive Democrat, how did you feel about being accused of being a tool of a right-wing smear?

Those are just distracting comments. He’s very good at reducing any criticism to either right-wing smears, or it’s just people being incompetent and not understanding information.

I think we’re all catching up to some of those tactics, and he knows that he’s quickly running out of time, and we’re going to get to the truth very soon.

It’s unfortunate it has to be this way. I hope he realizes every second he wastes we’re actually jeopardizing more lives in these facilities, because people are still dying every day in nursing homes from his policies.

Cuomo accused you of running a “continuing racket” of raising campaign funds from nail salon owners that opposed his nail salon reform bill. What is your response to that?

It’s just another typical Cuomo distraction. We’ve seen it over and over, it’s part of his tactics. But I’m doing my job and people are still impacted [by COVID]. And instead of talking about the truth, he wants to talk about nail salons.

In a tweet Thursday, you wrote that Cuomo had “pushed for blanket COVID legal immunity for unprepared nursing homes in the budget.” You asked, “Who got to Gov. Cuomo?”

Are you accusing the governor of a quid pro quo?

There’s a saying, “All you have to do is follow the money.”

There were a number of articles that showed the link between healthcare lobbyists that donated close to $1.3 million to Cuomo’s campaign and [Cuomo’s push for added immunity for nursing home executives]. The evidence is there.

The question is who let them into the governor’s office, and why did they slip that toxic law into the budget quietly at the last hour without notifying any members? Those are the tough questions that he needs to face.

And instead of confronting that challenge, [the Cuomo administration] chose to continue to work with the business interest and suppress the data for six months. Someone has to pay for that decision. My role is to continue to push, investigate, and do my job as a chair of the aging committee.

What do you think the governor can do to make this right? Should he resign? Should he face any other sanctions?

I think only Cuomo can answer that question for himself, at this point.

My colleagues are moving toward a number of different ways to protect the integrity of our Senate and Assembly. And I trust that the leadership in the Assembly and Senate will get us to the right place.

People keep forgetting 15,000 died [in New York nursing homes].

I feel like people don’t understand that number of deaths. It’s almost like we helped dehumanize these lives by constantly putting the number up for like six months. It is a shocking, dramatic number of people who died.

If we truly understood, we wouldn’t be able to go ahead and have lunches and dinners without feeling sick to our stomach every day over the fact that we had a state that allowed these many deaths.

You said that Gov. Cuomo called and threatened you. It’s got to be unnerving for the governor to be yelling at you while you’re standing around with your family, especially after you’ve put your chin out there as an adversary in his own party.

How did that call end? Did it just trail off? Or did you push back on Cuomo?

No, I was terrified. I didn’t push back. I wanted to get off as quickly as possible. I just wanted to acknowledge whatever he was saying and get off as soon as possible. No man has ever in my life spoken to me that way. I just told myself, “Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t take the bait.”

What made you want to go public with it? Because obviously that was going to invite more of Cuomo’s wrath.

I think if it had just been regular useless yelling, I think that’s fine, and I probably could just yell back and call it a day.

But the moment he instructed me – more or less – to write a statement that sounded different from what I heard [Cuomo advisor Melissa DeRosa] saying [on a conference call with Democrats], I realized he crossed an unethical and perhaps illegal line and I needed to protect myself.

I wasn’t sure at the time that I was going to go public, but after hearing Monday’s press conference where he continued to double down and tried to implicate the legislature in the coverup basically because we knew about the DOJ investigation, I realized what his pattern is, which is roping as many people into his coverup and his lies, and implicating them.

I sent a memo out Monday night, with my colleagues, pushing for repeal of Cuomo’s emergency powers, and also possible impeachment.

[Editor’s note: Cuomo’s senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said Kim is “lying” about the details of this call as “part of a years-long pattern of lies by Mr. Kim against this administration.” Gov. Cuomo on Monday argued for the need to retain emergency powers, saying they “have nothing to do with nursing homes.” On Wednesday the governor flatly-denied Kim’s accusations and said the assemblyman engaged in “unethical if not illegal” behavior in accepting nail salon owners’ campaign donations.]

We wanted to wake up our colleagues. This is corrupt, potentially illegal obstruction of justice. We need to wake up and we can’t be affiliated with this executive. We have to do our jobs. It was a very intense memo. And I got a lot of angry phone calls because of the memo, but I felt like [my colleagues] needed to wake up.

Once that memo went out, I knew that everything had to move forward and we had to deploy everything possible to hold him accountable. And part of that is making sure the public knows that he is an abuser. He tries to abuse people with his powers, for doing their jobs.

Read the original article on Business Insider