It was a freewheeling conversation in a Manhattan restaurant about how to change Albany. Andrew Cuomo, then New York’s attorney general, was a lock to be elected governor in 2010 and was already gaming the hurdles and opportunities.
His conclusion would prove prophetic in ways he couldn’t imagine. “The answer is to do it in two terms,” he told a companion. “Third terms are always a mistake.”
Cuomo cited his father, Mario Cuomo, and Republican George Pataki as governors who should have stopped after two terms, the companion tells me.
The irony is beyond rich now that Andrew Cuomo is hitting major turbulence midway through his own third term. Months after he was hailed as a model governor and touted as presidential timber, the question now is whether he will survive a federal investigation into the nursing-home disaster and accusations by a former aide that Cuomo sexually harassed her.
Power corrupts, third terms corrupt absolutely.
Calls for impeachment, a rare sound in Albany, are growing louder over the horrific 15,000 nursing-home deaths and Cuomo’s effort to hide them from the public and the FBI. Even louder are the calls from fellow Democrats as well as Republicans for an independent probe into the harassment claims.
The twin crises share common roots: Cuomo centralized power like no governor in modern times and came to see himself as untouchable. When the Legislature granted him emergency power early in the pandemic, he used it to fight critics as well as the virus.
The clamor against him has been slow to build largely because New York is run exclusively by Dems, most of whom would have instantly called for Cuomo’s head if he were a Republican. Their hesitancy is also owing to the governor’s reputation for taking retribution on even the mildest critics.
So the mere fact that detractors are coming forward is a sign of danger for him. It shows that fewer and fewer people are afraid of him now.
Strictly speaking, Cuomo doesn’t have a political problem. His chief flaw is akin to the Achilles heel of his former friend Donald Trump. It’s his personality, stupid.
I have known and covered Cuomo for over three decades, and sadly witnessed how the dark side of his nature grew along with his power. Even in off-the-record conversations, he began to lie.
“A hundred accomplishments but not a single friend,” is how one Albany insider puts it.
Some who know him believe he has an unhealthy competition with his father, with whom he had a rocky relationship.
Around the time of Mario’s death, the governor wondered aloud whether his father ever loved him. Yet he also says he sometimes wears his father’s shoes.
He was riding high at the start of his third term and although he toyed with seeking his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, there was no groundswell of support in a crowded field.
Then came the pandemic. He initially downplayed the possible effects, but soon pivoted into a command and control approach.
On March 25th, his office quietly issued a disastrous directive that forced nursing homes to accept infected COVID-19 patients being discharged from hospitals. The order, which contradicted federal guidelines calling for isolation and testing, gave nursing homes no grounds for refusing the patients and barred the facilities from asking if the patients were COVID positive. Some 9,000 patients would be transferred under the policy.
Despite his absurd defense of the order, Cuomo’s actions showed he knew it was a deadly mistake. He effectively rescinded it in May and, as the bodies piled up, secretly changed the way his office reported fatalities.
Previously, deaths were counted in nursing homes if patients contracted the disease there, even if they died in hospitals. But New York, unique among the 50 states, began limiting the count to those who actually died in nursing homes.
It also stopped releasing the full data, a devious plan which helped Cuomo get a book deal from a publisher and win an Emmy for his TV briefings. Both should be rescinded as fraudulent.
The con unraveled in January. In quick order, a report by Attorney General Letitia James concluded that the state undercounted nursing-home deaths by about 50 percent. And a judge ruled that Cuomo had to turn over all the data requested by the Empire Center for Public Policy in a Freedom of Information lawsuit.
The magnitude of the coverup turned out to be breathtaking. In days, the total deaths in nursing-home and other long-term care facilities surged from 8,700 to more than 15,000.
Cuomo’s patina of competence and credibility was shattered. It became a federal case when The Post revealed that a top aide defended the secrecy of the death total by effectively saying the governor’s office didn’t want the Justice Department to know the truth.
Seemingly cornered, Cuomo didn’t react with humility or contrition, but instead flew into a rage and made new enemies. He allegedly threatened to “destroy” Ron Kim, an Assembly Dem from Queens, because Kim called Cuomo’s actions a coverup and potentially a crime. Kim now leads the charge for impeachment.
Then came the bombshell allegation of sexual harassment by former aide Lindsey Boylan, complete with specifics and supporting evidence that, while not ironclad, show Cuomo was fixated on her. Boylan, who is married with a child, wrote on Medium that co-workers told her Cuomo had a “crush” on her and kept tabs on her whereabouts.
She described how he invited her to his office, showed her a cigar box and said it was a gift from Bill Clinton, which she took as a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She wrote that the governor “suggested I look up images of Lisa Shields — his rumored former girlfriend — because ‘we could be sisters and I was the better-looking sister.’ ” As partial proof, she revealed a relevant e-mail from a Cuomo aide.
Boylan adds: “The governor began calling me ‘Lisa’ in front of colleagues. It was degrading.”
She also said the governor repeatedly touched her and once kissed her on the lips without permission.
In an unusual reaction, Cuomo has not appeared in public since Boylan’s post, nor issued any personal denials. Several aides have issued denials under their names, but they are far from persuasive without the governor answering questions about the specific charges.
Calls for an investigation, including from Democrats in Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reflect the seriousness of the charges and the public’s right to know the truth.
The best way to get it is by another Letitia James probe, complete with subpoenas and sworn testimony. The AG is said to be “mulling” a request that she appoint an independent special prosecutor.
That’s the right idea, and the right time is now. James should make it happen.