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Top Cuomo aide apologized to Democrats, says 'we froze' in withholding COVID-19 data

A top aide to New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCuomo advisers altered COVID-19 nursing homes report: WSJ Cuomo accuser Charlotte Bennett says governor asked about previous sexual assault Cuomo accuser says she thought he was propositioning her MORE (D) has reportedly apologized in private to Democratic lawmakers for withholding the state’s nursing home death toll from the coronavirus, saying they feared the startling real figures would be "used against us."

According to a Thursday report from the New York Post, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa made the admission during a video conference call with state Democratic leaders.

She reportedly said that the Cuomo administration had delayed an Aug. 20 request from the New York state legislature for information about COVID-19 and nursing home facilities because it was “right around the same time, [then-President Trump] turns this into a giant political football.”

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“He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa said of Trump. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerCapitol Police asks National Guard to extend deployment 'SNL' envisions Fauci as game show host, giving winners vaccines Two men charged with making threatening calls to Michigan officials MORE.”

In audio of the two-hour call obtained by the outlet, DeRosa noted that Trump had directed the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the state. The agency sent a letter on Aug. 26 requesting that several Democratic governors, including Cuomo, provide figures about coronavirus deaths in state-run nursing homes. 

“And basically, we froze,” she reportedly said. “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. That played a very large role into this.”

She offered an apology for the Cuomo administration’s initial handling of nursing homes amid the pandemic. 

“So we do apologize,” DeRosa 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."

The contents of the call were confirmed by a source to CNN.

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In a Friday statement, DeRosa said that she was explaining that Cuomo’s office needed to “temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request” to deal with an inquiry from the Justice Department. 

“We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout,” DeRosa said. “As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”

According to a timeline released by Cuomo’s office Friday, the governor’s administration reached out to top state lawmakers in September requesting that the response time to the August request be paused so it could handle the Justice Department inquiry. 

In October, the agency expanded the probe to determine whether New York was undercounting coronavirus deaths. 

In response to the New York Post story, Cuomo's senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said Thursday in a statement that producing documents for the federal government was a “priority.”

“We explained that the Trump administration was in the midst of a politically motivated effort" to blame Democratic-led states for COVID-19 deaths, Azzopardi said, 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."

Cuomo’s office faced fierce backlash from both sides of the aisle over the admission.

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D) wrote on Twitter: "You're only sorry that you all got caught. Because of your decisions, thousands of people died who did not have to die. We're not 'offended', Melissa, we're furious  with extremely good reason."

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“Top legislative Democrats going behind closed doors with the Cuomo administration to discuss the nursing homes scandal is another stonewalling session that has nothing to do with revealing the truth, only with continuing to hide it,” wrote state Sen. Tom O’Mara (R). “What legislative Democrats need to do is to call for testimony and full records from Governor Cuomo and his inner circle, under subpoena, in public."

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The call came one month after New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) released a report in late January that found Cuomo’s administration had undercounted the number of nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent. 

The governor’s administration was reportedly obscuring the true count of nursing home deaths in the state by only counting residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transferred to hospitals, which, according to James’s report, was the majority.

More than 9,000 recovering COVID-19 patients in New York were released from hospitals into nursing homes during the early days of the pandemic, The Associated Press reported ThursdayThat figure is 40 percent higher than what had previously been released by the state’s health department. 

New York House GOP lawmakers earlier this month sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting that it subpoena Cuomo over New York's treatment of nursing homes during the pandemic. 

The charge was led by Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikParliamentarian strikes down Pelosi priority in aid package Cuomo asks New York AG to appoint independent attorney to investigate sexual harassment claims Psaki: Cuomo should face 'independent review' over sexual harassment allegations MORE (R-N.Y.) and requested that the Justice Department subpoena "the Secretary to the Governor, the New York State Commissioner of Health and their staff on all documentation and communications related to their nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Updated at 9:48 p.m.