Governor Cuomo’s top aide privately apologized to Democratic lawmakers for withholding the state’s nursing-home death toll from COVID-19 — telling them “we froze” out of fear the true numbers would “be used against us” by federal prosecutors, The Post has learned.
The stunning admission of a cover-up was made by Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa during a video conference call with state Democratic leaders in which she said the Cuomo administration had rebuffed a legislative request for the tally in August because “right around the same time, [then-President Donald Trump] turns this into a giant political football,” according to an audio recording of the two-hour-plus meeting.
“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa said. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer.”
In addition to attacking Cuomo’s fellow Democratic governors, DeRosa said, Trump “directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us.”
“And basically, we froze,” she told the lawmakers on the call.
“Because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice, or what we give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”
DeRosa added: “That played a very large role into this.”
After dropping the bombshell, DeRosa asked for “a little bit of appreciation of the context” and offered what appears to be the Cuomo administration’s first apology for its handling of nursing homes amid the pandemic.
But instead of a mea culpa to the grieving family members of more than 13,000 dead seniors or the critics who say the Health Department spread COVID-19 in the care facilities with a March 25 state Health Department directive that nursing homes admit infected patients, DeRosa tried to make amends with the fellow Democrats for the political inconvenience it caused them.
“So we do apologize,” she said. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans.”
Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) immediately rejected DeRosa’s expression of remorse, according to the recording.
“I don’t have enough time today to explain all the reasons why I don’t give that any credit at all,” said Gottfried, one of the lawmakers who demanded the death-toll data in August.
State Senate Aging Committee Chairwoman Rachel May (D-Syracuse) — who was battered during her re-election bid last year over the issue of nursing-home deaths — also ripped into DeRosa, saying her former opponent had launched another broadside earlier in the day.
“And the issue for me, the biggest issue of all is feeling like I needed to defend — or at least not attack — an administration that was appearing to be covering something up,” she said.
“And in a, in a pandemic, when you want the public to trust the public-health officials, and there is this clear feeling that they’re not coming, being forthcoming with you, that is really hard and it remains difficult.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens), who took part in the call, told The Post on Thursday that DeRosa’s remarks sounded “like they admitted that they were trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence that might put the administration or the [Health Department] in further trouble with the Department of Justice.”
“That’s how I understand their reasoning of why they were unable to share, in real time, the data,” Kim said.
“They had to first make sure that the state was protected against federal investigation.”
Kim, whose uncle is presumed to have died of COVID-19 in a nursing home in April, also said he wasn’t satisfied with DeRosa’s apology.
“It’s not enough how contrite they are with us,” he said. “They need to show that to the public and the families — and they haven’t done that.”
In addition to stonewalling lawmakers on the the total number of nursing home residents killed by COVID-19, Cuomo’s administration also refused requests from the news media — including The Post — and fought a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Empire Center on Public Policy.
Instead, it only disclosed data on the numbers of residents who died in their nursing homes.
But after Attorney General Letitia James last month released a damning report that estimated the deaths of nursing-home residents in hospitals would boost the grim tally by more than 50 percent, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker finally released figures showing the combined total was 12,743 as of Jan. 19.
Just a day earlier, the DOH was only publicly acknowledging 8,711 deaths in nursing homes.
In a Wednesday letter to lawmakers, Zucker said the total number of nursing home residents killed by COVID-19 had increased to 13,297 That number jumps to 15,049 when assisted living/adult care facilities are factored in.
The controversy generated by James’ report led to an infamous news conference at which Cuomo callously dismissed the matter of where nursing home fatalities actually took place.
“Who cares [if they] died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died,” he said.
During Wednesday’s conference call, DeRosa said it appeared the DOJ was no longer focused on New York’s nursing home deaths.
“All signs point to they are not looking at this, they’ve dropped it,” she said.
“They never formally opened an investigation. They sent a letter asking a number of questions and then we satisfied those questions and it appears that they’re gone.”
In a prepared statement, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said, “We explained that the Trump administration was in the midst of a politically motivated effort to blame democratic states for COVID deaths and that we were cooperating with Federal document productions and that was the priority and now that it is over we can address the state legislature.”
“That said, we were working simultaneously to complete the audit of information they were asking for,” he added.
The DOJ declined to comment.