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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office won’t reveal what it told the Justice Department about COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, rejecting Freedom of Information requests from The Post and other media outlets — claiming in part that doing so would be an “invasion of personal privacy.”
“Please be advised that portions of the records that respond to your request are exempt
from disclosure pursuant to Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b) because, if disclosed, would
constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’” Jaclyn Clemmer, the governor’s record access officer, wrote in a denial response to The Post.
The Associated Press received a similar denial letter.
Clemmer didn’t explain whose privacy might be invaded, or how. The Post did not request any personal ID information of nursing home residents. She also said the records sought were exempt from public disclosure because the release would “interfere with law enforcement investigations.”
The Justice Department last year requested that New York and other states turn over data regarding COVID-19 infections and deaths inside nursing homes.
The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn and the state Assembly Judiciary Committee are also investigating claims that the Cuomo administration intentionally undercounted or lied about the number of nursing home residents killed by COVID.
Federal prosecutors initiated a probe after The Post exclusively revealed in February that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, privately admitted to state Democratic lawmakers that his administration withheld the total nursing home death toll from COVID-19 from them due to a pending federal probe.
Just weeks before, state Attorney General Letitia James issued a stinging report that found Cuomo officials undercounted the COVID-linked deaths of New York’s nursing home residents by 50 percent. Within hours, a defensive state Health Department Commissioner Howard Zucker added thousands to the death toll.
It was later revealed that Cuomo’s office removed the higher nursing home death count from a July Health Department report about the state’s handling of nursing homes during the early months of the pandemic.
The Associated Press reported Friday that Cuomo’s office rebuffed a nearly identical request for COVID-related nursing home data that state officials provided to the Justice Department.
The Post in February requested “any correspondence, memorandum, documents, minutes of meetings between the executive chamber and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding New York nursing homes and the coronavirus pandemic.”
The request specifically asked for “any information concerning deaths of nursing home residents from COVID-19 that includes any questions about reporting, methods, and any data on COVID-19 deaths linked to nursing homes that were turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice.”
Cuomo in February claimed he supported releasing the records.
“Look, I would have no problem with it,” said Cuomo, a former state attorney general now facing multiple COVID and sexual harassment investigations.
“I would have to have the lawyers talk to DOJ, but I would have no problem with it.”
Under state law, law enforcement agencies are allowed to withhold records related to ongoing criminal investigations. But in this case, the governor’s office has applied the exemption to data initially compiled for public health purposes which was sent to the Justice Department’s civil division.
New York is not the only state that has declined to make its response to Justice Department inquiries public, AP reports.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s office also said it could not provide information because the Justice Department hadn’t “closed the investigation.”
A state judge also ordered Cuomo and the health department to release COVID nursing home statistics after concluding they broke the Freedom of Information Law by refusing to release information sought by Empire Center for Public Policy.
After months of stonewalling, Cuomo admitted it was a mistake to take so long to release the data, but claimed the delay was not an attempt to hide the death toll.
The administration claimed it didn’t release a full tally sooner because it needed time to verify how many nursing home patients died after being transferred to hospitals.
In its document requests, the Justice Department asked for the number of residents, staff and visitors who contracted COVID-19 or died from the virus and the number of people admitted to each nursing home after being treated for COVID-19 at a hospital.
The governors of Democratic states claimed they were being unfairly targeted by the Trump-led Justice Department.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has a long tradition of exercising its considerable power in an impartial and non-partisan manner and we are concerned your letter departs from that tradition,” Michigan’s Chief Legal Counsel Mark Totten said.
With the Associated Press
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