ALBANY — The Justice Department has decided not to open a civil rights investigation into government-run nursing homes in New York over their COVID-19 response, according to a letter sent Friday to several Republican members of Congress.
Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, the department’s civil rights division requested data last August from four states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan — about the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in public nursing homes.
The request came amid still-unanswered questions about whether some states, especially New York, inadvertently worsened the pandemic death toll by requiring nursing homes to accept residents previously hospitalized for COVID-19.
In a letter sent to several Republicans who had demanded an investigation, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joe Gaeta said civil rights division lawyers had reviewed the data sent by New York, along with additional information.
“Based on that review, we have decided not to open a CRIPA investigation of any public nursing facility within New York at this time,” Gaeta wrote, referring to the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which empowers the Justice Department to investigate allegations about unlawful conditions in government-run residences.
The Justice Department sent similar letters earlier in the week to officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesperson, Richard Azzopardi, declined to comment.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has previously accused Trump’s Department of Justice of initiating the inquiry for purely political reasons. He has also defended the decision to bar nursing homes from rejecting COVID-19 patients during the worst weeks of the pandemic, saying the state was desperate at the time to move recovering patients out of overwhelmed hospitals.
Friday’s letter doesn’t address the status of other Justice Department inquiries into how the Cuomo administration handled data related to COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes.
Federal prosecutors have been examining the governor’s coronavirus task force and trying to determine whether the state intentionally manipulated data regarding nursing home deaths, The Associated Press previously reported.
More than 15,800 people have died in nursing homes and assisted living residences in New York. The state’s original count of the dead had been much lower because it had excluded thousands of people who got infected in nursing homes, but died in hospitals.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie on Friday said that the highly anticipated outcome of an attorney general’s investigation into the myriad issues plaguing Cuomo may not be enough for the Legislature to begin an impeachment proceeding of the governor.
The Times Union of Albany reported the speaker’s remarks drew an immediate rebuke from an attorney for one of the multiple women who have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. That attorney summarized his remarks as a “cover up in progress.”
The Assembly’s impeachment investigation of Cuomo has lagged behind the one being conducted under Executive Law by the office of Attorney General Letitia James, whose investigators are probing the sexual harassment accusations and whether the governor improperly used state employees to help publish a book about his handling of the pandemic.
Heastie said while he respects the investigation from James, when her report comes out, it may not be enough to signal the Assembly to gather and begin an impeachment proceeding — apparently even if some or all of the allegations are substantiated.
“I believe it should be a part of the Assembly’s review, but I don’t know if the report itself, alone, without the conclusion of the Judiciary Committee’s work should rise to an action,” Heastie said. “I think it should be included. The committee should look at and review it.”
Instead, the Judiciary Committee, tasked with investigating Cuomo, should carry on with its work and at the pace it needs to do it effectively, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said. The Judiciary Committee recently authorized the private law firm leading the investigation to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to speak, which lawmakers acknowledged was an inevitable step, but not one they took until it had been requested by the attorneys.
The comments by Heastie were “alarming and outrageous,” said attorney Debra S. Katz, who represents Charlotte Bennett, a former aide who accused the governor of sexual harassment, including trying to groom her for sex.
“Speaker Heastie has made clear that he will actively obstruct efforts to hold Gov. Cuomo responsible even if, as we expect will be the case, the attorney general’s investigators substantiate the multiple allegations of sexual harassment levied against the governor by Ms. Bennett and the other complainants,” Katz said in a statement Friday afternoon.