As Cuomo sought $4 million book deal, aides hid damaging death toll

Albany, New York Published: Apr 01, 2021, 01:37 PM(IST)

Andrew Cuomo Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public

As the coronavirus subsided in New York last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had begun pitching a book proposal that would center on his image as a hero of the pandemic. But by early last summer, both his book and image had hit a critical juncture.

Cuomo leaned on his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, for assistance. She attended video meetings with publishers, and helped him edit early drafts of the book. But there was also another, more pressing edit underway at the same time.

An impending Health Department report threatened to disclose a far higher number of nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus than the Cuomo administration had previously made public. DeRosa and other top aides expressed concern about the higher death toll and, after their intervention, the number — which had appeared in the second sentence of the report — was removed from the final version.

The revisions occurred as the governor was on the brink of a huge payoff: a book deal that ended with a high offer of more than $4 million, according to people with knowledge of the book’s bidding process.

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A New York Times examination of the development of Cuomo’s lucrative book deal revealed how it overlapped with the move by his most senior aides to reshape a report about nursing home deaths in a way that insulated the governor from criticism and burnished his image.

Cuomo also utilized the resources of his office — from his inner circle to far more junior personnel — to help with the manuscript. In late June and early July, for example, a top aide to the governor, Stephanie Benton, twice asked assistants to print portions of the draft of the book, and deliver them to Cuomo at the Executive Mansion in Albany, where he lives.

One of Benton’s directives came June 27, the same day that DeRosa convened an impromptu teleconference with several other top advisers to discuss the Health Department draft report.

On Wednesday, Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, rejected any link between Cuomo’s book and the Health Department report.

“There is no connection between the report and this outside project, period,” Azzopardi said. “And any suggestion otherwise is just wrong.”

The book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was a dramatic retelling of the battle against the virus in a state where nearly 50,000 people have died. It would garner Cuomo a fleeting spot on the bestseller list.

Emails and an early draft of Cuomo’s book obtained by The New York Times indicate that the governor was writing it as early as mid-June, relying on a cadre of trusted aides and junior staffers for everything from full-scale edits to minor clerical work, potentially running afoul of state laws prohibiting use of public resources for personal gain.

One aide to the governor, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that she and others were also asked to assist in typing or transferring notes for Cuomo’s book, which he composed in part by dictating into a cellphone.

“Sorry lady can u print this too and put in a binder,” Benton wrote to another female staffer on July 5, a Sunday. “And drop at mansion.”

DeRosa, the highest nonelected official in Cuomo’s office, was particularly involved with the development of the book, and was present during some online pitch meetings with Cuomo. The July 5 request, in fact, was to print a 224-page draft entitled “MDR edits” — a reference to DeRosa, who had sent the draft to Benton on July 4, according to the emails. The staffers communicated via personal Gmail accounts, not official governmental email addresses.

Azzopardi said that DeRosa and Benton had “volunteered on this project” during their free time, something he added was “permissible and consistent with ethical requirements” of the state.

As for the junior aides’ participation in tasks related to the book, he said, “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project.”

“To the extent an aide printed out a document,” he said, “it appears incidental.”

DeRosa also had significant input on the July 6 report issued by the Department of Health, which basically cleared Cuomo’s administration of fault in its handling of nursing homes — discounting the impact of a March 2020 state memo that had asked such facilities to take in or readmit residents who had tested positive for the disease.

Critical changes had been made to the final version of the Health Department report, after concerns were raised about the data by DeRosa and a second Cuomo aide, Linda Lacewell, according to interviews and documents.

In two earlier drafts of the report, which were both reviewed by The Times, the second sentence said that “from March 1, 2020, through June 10, 2020, there were 9,844 fatalities among NYS nursing home residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.”

The earlier drafts were written by Eleanor Adams, a top state epidemiologist, and Jim Malatras, a former Cuomo aide who now serves as chancellor of the State University of New York system. The 9,844 death total was far higher than the 6,432 nursing home deaths used in the state’s final report, which continued the state’s practices of omitting the deaths of nursing home residents who died at the hospital.

Azzopardi said the July 6 report was intended to examine whether the administration’s policies “contributed to increased deaths, and not be a full accounting” of all nursing home residents who died. He added that the report had since been updated to include most “out of facility” deaths. It did not change the overall conclusions of the report, he said.

Cuomo, 63, has declined to confirm exactly how much he was paid for “American Crisis,” which was published by Crown Publishing Group in mid-October, just as a second wave of the coronavirus began to swell in New York.

Crown declined to comment on the sale price or confirm that it slightly exceeded $4 million, a large sum for an author whose previous memoir, “All Things Possible,” from 2014, sold fewer than 4,000 hardcover copies.

The governor’s office said he would donate a “significant portion” of the book’s proceeds to a COVID-related charity, though he has not indicated how much; on Wednesday, Azzopardi reiterated that the governor’s book payment and charitable contributions would be released with his tax returns and state-mandated financial disclosures, both of which are due in mid-May.

Since the book’s publication, Cuomo has seen his carefully crafted public image badly tarnished as the revelations about obfuscation of the scope of nursing home deaths have resulted in a federal investigation.

At the same time, the governor has also been battling a series of sexual harassment accusations, including some from former employees like Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan, and a current aide, Alyssa McGrath. Those allegations have been the subject of an investigation overseen by the state attorney general, Letitia James, as well as one led by the state Assembly. The conclusions of those investigations are likely months away.

Cuomo’s draft of the book did contain some acknowledgment of problems with the nursing homes, including a suggestion — also included in “American Crisis” — that new facilities should be built to handle “infected people who do not require the acute care of a hospital but should not be sent to a nursing home or a rehabilitation center because they may not be prepared to provide the level of care and isolation a contagious person requires.”

The draft DeRosa worked on did not have any mention of the Health Department report, its data or its conclusions.

The draft also contains a three-page-long broadside against Mayor Bill de Blasio, the governor’s fellow Democrat and frequent political foe, which was cut from the final manuscript. He characterized the mayor as a political opportunist having “very little interest or aptitude for government policy or governmental operations.”

Cuomo also compared his popularity rating to that of the mayor — “My popular rating in New York City has always been higher than his,” he wrote — and denigrated de Blasio as being “viewed as one of the worst mayors in modern history,” who suffers from “obvious ego driven narcissism.”

“De Blasio’s standing is somewhere between negative and irrelevant,” Cuomo wrote in the early July draft, before comparing him, unfavorably, to President Donald Trump. “He is just annoying and counterproductive. Trump is a serious threat.”

Cuomo’s self-assessment, however, was often less critical.

“I have experience and a skill set that qualifies me as a good governor,” Cuomo wrote in his draft. “I have accomplished by any objective standard more than any governor in modern history. But I am not a superhero.”

Bill Neidhardt, the spokesperson for de Blasio, said that “Andrew Cuomo writing about ego-driven narcissism sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.”

“It’s more of the same from a bully facing impeachment after covering up deaths at nursing homes and numerous credible accusations of sexual assault,” Neidhardt said.

The disclosure that Cuomo apparently used staff to assist with his book comes after revelations that his administration gave members of the governor’s family and other influential people special access to government-run coronavirus testing last March when such tests were difficult for most residents to obtain.

The list of those receiving preferred access included the governor’s mother, Matilda Cuomo; his younger brother, Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor; and at least one of his sisters. On March 25, The Times also reported that a pharmaceutical executive with long-standing ties to the state was able to secure testing in March for his family.

Cuomo’s book has sold around 48,000 hardcover copies, according to NPD BookScan, but has seen its sales staggered by scandals surrounding his administration. In early March, Crown said that it would stop promoting “American Crisis,” because of a federal investigation into the withholding of data. The imprint also canceled plans for a paperback edition.

Cuomo’s draft of “American Crisis” contained some nuggets of self-reflection, including a take on his televised briefings last year, which led to him being one of the most popular political figures in the nation for a time.

“People are smart,” the governor wrote. “And after a while if they can watch you long enough, they can figure out who you are.”

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