New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't mince words Thursday morning when asked about allegations that Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened a Queens assemblyman, saying he believed the charges "100 percent."
Ron Kim says he was yelled at and threatened by Cuomo after criticizing his handling of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes – which is now being looked into by federal authorities.
"It's a sad thing to say ... but that's classic Andrew Cuomo. A lot of people in New York state have received those phone calls. The bullying is nothing new. I believe Ron Kim and it's very, very sad, no public servant no person who's telling the truth should be treated that way. The threats, the belittling, the demand that someone change their statement right that moment ... many many times I've heard that and I know a lot of other people in this state have heard that," De Blasio said in an MSNBC interview.
"It's just the script, it's exactly what a lot of us have heard before. It's not a surprise, it's sad. It's not the way people should be treated," de Blasio said. He also said Cuomo's tirades weren't limited to politicians.
“I don’t think it’s just government,” de Blasio added. “A number of your colleagues in the media will tell you about calls where they were berated and belittled. It’s something that a lot of people in New York state have known about for a long time. I can’t get into the why. That’s a deeper question, I can only say it’s a very unfortunate way to treat people.”
Many trace the bad blood between the two politicians to a 2015 interview, where de Blasio publicly complained that Cuomo was a bully.
“If someone disagrees with him openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows,” the mayor said.
The Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI have now opened a preliminary investigation into the Cuomo administration's handling of nursing home-related data, according to senior officials familiar with the probe. Spokespeople for the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI declined to comment Wednesday night.
De Blasio -- whose frosty and often antagonistic relationship with Cuomo is well documented -- said the probe was necessary.
"The notion that information was held back for political convenience instead of the blunt truth coming out so we could save lives? Something's profoundly wrong there," the mayor said.
The investigation comes as Kim, like Cuomo a Democrat, accused the governor of obstruction and other wrongdoing after an AP report found his administration misrepresented the number of deaths in nursing homes by thousands. One of Cuomo's top aides was also heard telling lawmakers that the administration took months to release data revealing how many people living at nursing homes died of COVID-19 because officials “froze” over worries the information was “going to be used against us" by former President Donald Trump's Justice Department.
Now Kim says Cuomo is "trying to punish me" for speaking out.
In a Zoom interview with NBC New York on Wednesday, Kim broke down and had to end the conversation after recounting how the furious governor called him at home, when he was with his wife and kids.
"He spent 10 minutes berating me, yelling at me, threatening me and my career, my livelihood," Kim said. The lawmaker said that his wife heard much of the interaction and was shocked and scared, saying she "didn't sleep that night."
Kim says the governor's team could have disclosed the numbers months ago, and with that data, believes policy changes could have possibly helped save lives.
"I refuse to be a cover-up for him, and that's why he's coming after me and trying to punish me," Kim said, adding he's just trying to do what he believes is the right thing. "They admitted to covering up information about life and death."
He is one of many now in Albany, from both sides of the political aisle, accusing the administration of a cover-up, saying it was done to "protect (Cuomo's) politics, his political future."
A senior aide to the governor said that he was in the room when the call was made and alleged that "Mr. Kim is lying about the conversation" and that "at no time did anyone threaten to 'destroy' anyone with their 'wrath' nor engage in a 'coverup.' That's beyond the pale."
During a call with reporters, Cuomo similarly went after Kim.
"I said to him on the phone, 'There is still integrity and honor and decency in politics,'" the governor said.
Cuomo addressed the conversation the two had, saying there is past bad blood between the two politicians from Queens. Cuomo said it stems from a past unrelated issue in which he accused Kim of switching sides on nail salon safety in order to raise campaign money from the salons.
"I believe it was unethical, if not illegal, and I believe it's a continuing racket," the governor said.
Senior Cuomo Aide Rick Azzopardi said the assemblyman's comments are "part of a years-long pattern of lies...against this administration."
Kim brushed aside that take, saying it shows "a lack of leadership" to bring up the nail salon debate "when 15,000 have lost their loved ones in nursing homes."
Cuomo has never been shy about his aggressive approach, which has earned him monikers like the “Prince of Darkness” from observers. He had gained a reputation as a political enforcer by age 25 while working for the campaign of his late father Gov. Mario Cuomo. The current governor has long defended his hard-edged strategy as effective politics, while saying his true strength comes from consensus building, not instilling fear.
“This is a governor who works night and day to move the ball down the field for New Yorkers and they know that, which is why he has been elected and re-elected three times over the last 10 years,” Azzopardi said in a statement.
So far, Cuomo’s conduct toward Kim hasn’t generated public criticism from the two most important legislative leaders: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins.
Heastie said in a statement that “everyone involved needs to lower the temperature.”
Stewart-Cousins has backed a bill that would restrict Cuomo’s emergency power to issue sweeping mandates during the coronavirus pandemic, pushed by lawmakers irritated about being cut out of key decisions.
But a vocal crop of Democrats are calling for Cuomo’s behavior to change, saying he relies too often on threats of ruining political careers to score wins.
“What Ron Kim described is not a terribly unusual story,” Deputy Majority Senate Leader Michael Gianaris said.
“I think it’s quite clear that there is an appetite for accountability,” Queens Assembly member Zohran Mamdani said. “And for far too long the governor has considered himself above that.”
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi — who’s also criticized Cuomo’s pandemic response — said she’s been subjected to the governor’s pressure tactics, too, although she said she never experienced anything like the call Kim described.
“They have said things to me and sent ominous messages to me and the governor himself has made threatening remarks to me,” said Biaggi, whose district includes Bronx and Westchester.
The Cuomo administration said Thursday that 15,000 number includes people in assisted living and adult care facilities, as well as those in nursing homes. It clarified that 13,453 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 within or outside their facilities, up from the previously closed 8,500 nursing home deaths.
In a statement later released by Kim, he alleged that Cuomo "surreptitiously slipped legal immunity into our state budget for hospital executives and for-profit nursing homes at the request of powerful lobbyists" who had previously donated to his campaign. He also slammed the administration's frequent response that they were getting the information to the feds as quickly as possible.
"As legislators we have a duty to uncover the truth behind the nursing home deaths and the governor's explanations do not add up," Kim' statement read. "While he claims he was taking time to answer the Justice Department, we saw him gallivant around on a book tour and victory lap across prime time cable shows."
On Wednesday, Cuomo again tried to placate families who lost loved ones, saying his failure to provide nursing home data sooner was a mistake — noting that it was "not illegal, not unethical. But just failed people in that moment."
Families are still not buying that explanation from the governor.
"Governor Cuomo turned nursing homes into COVID death chambers," said Tracey Alvino, who lost her 76-year-old father Daniel after he was in a Long Island nursing home for just 11 days to recover from an orthopedic operation when COVID hit. She said Cuomo needs to answer families' concerns.
"His feet need to be held to the fire, we need an independent at the state and federal level," said Alvino.
Some Republicans on the national level, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, have also called for an investigation into the governor's handling of nursing homes.
"As we publicly said, DOJ has been looking into this for months. We have been cooperating with them and we will continue to," said Azzopardi.
Last month, state Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report that said the state Health Department underreported the COVID-19 death toll at nursing homes by as much as 50 percent.
And last week, DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, said that the state held off on releasing the fuller death count in August because of fears that Trump would use the information against Cuomo.
On Monday, the governor acknowledged that "things should have been done differently" and insisted that "lessons were learned."
"In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests? In my opinion, yes. And that's what created the void," Cuomo said. "I just want to make sure people know these are the facts: Everything that could have been done was done."
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in New York are now reported to be reconsidering their decision to grant Cuomo emergency powers to contend with the COVID-19 crisis.
New York was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic, and until recently the state led the country in COVID-19 deaths. It had recorded 47,301 as of Wednesday, second only to California's 47,670 deaths, according to the most recent NBC News data.
Most of New York's deaths came in the early days of the pandemic, when public health officials were trying to figure out how the coronavirus was spreading.