AOC intervenes in growing scandal
A scandal of sorts erupted in the United States this week as Republican Senator Ted Cruz fled his native Texas, in the middle of a deadly crisis, to visit tropical Cancun with his family.
Mr Cruz was caught on camera at the airport, and promptly flew home to a storm of anger and mockery from his constituents.
Meanwhile, on the other side of US politics, a more serious scandal was quietly growing in intensity. This one involved New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is one of the most powerful and recognisable Democrats in the country.
Mr Cuomo is facing escalating calls for an investigation into his state government's handling of the coronavirus, and a push to strip away the executive powers he was granted at the start of the pandemic.
It all comes back to accusations that the government covered up the true extent of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents last year.
Here is everything you need to know, including the very latest developments.
In January, New York Attorney-General Letitia James issued a damning report, which found the state's Department of Health (DOH) had published nursing home data that undercounted deaths by as much as 50 per cent.
In essence, it alleged the government had not properly counted patients who died after being moved to hospital.
"Preliminary data obtained by the office of the Attorney-General suggests that many nursing home residents died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not published in DOH's published total nursing home death data," it said.
"Preliminary data also reflects apparent underreporting to DOH by some nursing homes of resident deaths occurring in nursing homes."
Mr Cuomo's response was to blame the federal government and dismiss questions about the discrepancies in nursing home deaths as political attacks.
"Everyone did the best they could," he said on January 29.
"The state Department of Health followed federal guidance. So if you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government.
"It's not about pointing fingers or blame. It's that this became a political football, right? Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, it's - people died. People died."
The question is not so much where the patients died, however, as where they were infected, and whether needless deaths occurred because of Mr Cuomo's policy decisions.
In March of last year, early in the pandemic, Mr Cuomo issued an order directing nursing homes to accept people who had or were suspected of having the virus, as long as they were medically stable. He also banned nursing homes from requiring a COVID-19 test from any prospective residents before they moved in.
The idea at the time was to free up hospital beds. This was at the point when New York was the epicentre of infections in the US.
Mr Cuomo amended the directive in May to prohibit hospitals from discharging patients to nursing homes unless they had tested negative for the virus.
By the time he changed the order, more than 6000 people with the virus had been admitted to nursing homes across the state.
This led to one core question: how many nursing home residents caught the virus and subsequently died because infected patients had been let in?
According to the official figures, which were revised upward in the wake of Ms James' report last month, more than 13,000 nursing home residents have died throughout the pandemic. That is a significant proportion of New York's 47,000-person death toll.
Mr Cuomo has blamed the aged care infections on the facilities' staff members, saying they introduced the virus - not the COVID-positive patients. He's often cited an analysis by his own Department of Health, published in July, to back up that claim.
In any case, underreporting the number of deaths among nursing home residents would theoretically minimise the perceived effect of Mr Cuomo's order. Hence the cloud of suspicion around the issue.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing tough questions and criticism in the wake of a report alleging that his administration undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. @KathyParkNBC has the details. pic.twitter.com/LcBsnqj1af— TODAY (@TODAYshow) February 13, 2021
On February 10, the scandal exploded further.
Mr Cuomo's top aide, secretary Melissa DeRosa, apologised to Democratic state politicians during a conference call for rebuffing their request for the full tally of nursing home deaths in August of last year.
The New York Post obtained a recording of the two-hour meeting, during which Ms DeRosa said the Cuomo administration "froze" because it thought the tally might be "used against us" by federal prosecutors under the direction of then-president Donald Trump.
"Basically, we froze," she 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."
Democratic politicians on the call rejected that explanation. One of them, Assemblywoman Rachel May, vented that the administration appeared "to be covering something up".
Another, Assemblyman Ron Kim, later told The Post it had sounded like "they admitted they were trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence".
After the story broke, Ms DeRosa issued a public statement downplaying her words: "I was explaining that when received the Department of Justice inquiry, we need to temporarily set aside the legislature's request to deal with the federal request first."
Mr Kim's own uncle died from the virus while in a nursing home. After the conference call with Ms DeRosa, he privately told Mr Cuomo's staff that the Governor should apologise for the order he issued in March.
"There should be some sort of recognition. Maybe an apology," he said, according to The Post, which again obtained the audio.
"I know this is something that is a sensitive issue and no one wants to talk about it. But I think the families, the public, I think just recognise - will appreciate, I wouldn't say honesty, but just the recognition of their pain.
"I think some sort of contriteness from the administration will go a very long way."
Mr Kim went on to make the same argument in public. Mr Cuomo, it seems, did not appreciate the advice.
During a media conference on Wednesday this week, the Governor went after Mr Kim, accusing him of self-dealing on nail salon regulations.
"Kim acted unethically, if not illegally, in that situation."
Subsequently, Mr Kim spoke to both CNN and The New York Times, alleging Mr Cuomo had called him late at night last week and threatened to "destroy" him.
"He goes off about how I hadn't seen his wrath and anger, that he would destroy me and he would go out tomorrow and start telling how bad of a person I am, and I would be finished, and how he had bit his tongue about me for months," said Mr Kim.
"This was all yelling. It wasn't a pleasant tone."
He claimed the Governor was pressuring him to issue a new statement corroborating the one Ms DeRosa had given the media after her words on the conference call were reported.
"Basically, I saw a crime and he's asking me to say that I did not see that crime," he said.
Mr Cuomo's office reacted by accusing Mr Kim of lying about the phone call.
NY Assemblyman Ron Kim (D) on The View: “Cuomo is an abuser. He has abused his powers and abusers are cowards.” pic.twitter.com/nPtH7s1uHX— The Recount (@therecount) February 19, 2021
We're almost caught up now.
Yesterday, it was reported that both the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had started investigations into the Cuomo administration's handling of nursing home data.
That news came amid a bipartisan push for a "full investigation" from members of the state legislature, which includes several Democrats.
High profile Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a federal district in New York, added her voice to that push today.
"I support our state's return to coequal governance, and stand with our local officials calling for a full investigation of the Cuomo administration's handling of nursing homes during COVID-19," Ms Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement.
"Thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers lost their lives in nursing homes throughout the pandemic. Their loved ones and the public deserve answers and transparency from their elected leadership."
In addition, Mr Kim is leading calls for Mr Cuomo to be stripped of the emergency powers he was granted in the early months of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has frequently clashed with Mr Cuomo over the years, condemned his "bullying" of Mr Kim on MSNBC.
"That's classic Andrew Cuomo. A lot of people in New York state have received those phone calls. The bullying is nothing new," said Mr de Blasio.
"It's very, very sad. No public servant, no person who's telling the truth should be treated that way."
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio on Governor Andrew Cuomo reportedly threatening a lawmaker over nursing home criticism:— The Recount (@therecount) February 18, 2021
“That’s classic Andrew Cuomo … The bullying is nothing new.” pic.twitter.com/N1GwDtDRRU
None of this has shifted Mr Cuomo, who remained defiant during a media conference today.
The Governor insisted the data provided by his administration was accurate at the time, but said he "did not produce public information fast enough".
"This creates a void. And conspiracy theories and politics and rumours fill that void, and you can't allow inaccurate information to go unanswered."
"Those false statements must be countered. They must be, or else people get confused. No one has a right to spread lies or misinformation that causes pain to families.
"I understand politics are a nasty business in this environment. I get it, I get it. I live it every day. But this is different. This is causing pain to families who lost a loved one."
The Governor continued to frame the problem as a failure to debunk "misinformation" throughout the pandemic.
"We were busy. We were doing our job, we were trying to save lives. No excuses. I was not aggressive enough in knocking down the falsities," he said.
"I heard them, I saw them, I dismissed it as politics. I dismissed it as personal agendas. I dismissed it as partisan politics, which is at a fever pitch nowadays. But I should have been more aggressive in calling it out."
Originally published as AOC intervenes in growing scandal