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Following probe, Republicans want Cuomo impeachment panel

ALBANY — Assembly Republicans announced plans Thursday to form an impeachment panel to gather evidence about Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s COVID-19 policies and deaths in New York nursing homes.

Lawmakers in the state Legislature laid out their plans as they continue to negotiate steps to rescind Cuomo’s emergency authority following reports of a federal investigation.

The chamber’s announcement comes on the heels of reports late Wednesday that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the state’s Eastern District launched an investigation into the work of several senior members of the governor’s state Coronavirus Task Force. The federal investigation was first reported Wednesday night by the Albany Times Union.

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, said the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation into Cuomo and his administration is an important first step, as well as another example of why the Legislature needs to retake its role in government.

“Facts are going to come out, and facts need to come out,” he said. “I’ve continually called for honesty in government, and I think it’s important we hold the governor to account. If he’s been dishonest, we need to see that he’s held to the full account of the law.”

Since state Attorney General Letitia James released a report indicating the Cuomo administration seemingly underreported deaths from COVID-19 in nursing homes by about half, calls to revoke the governor’s expanded emergency powers to enact laws and control the state budget have grown.

Walczyk said he has long been calling for the governor’s emergency powers to end, and he doesn’t believe removing them should be used as a punishment or a threat.

While Democratic leaders in the state Senate announced support for ending the governor’s emergency powers, the position of Assembly leaders is still unclear. Walczyk said he believes there is support in the Assembly for such a move, although he believes many of his Democratic colleagues are keeping silent on the issue.

“It does not surprise me if Democrat members of the Assembly have not been vocal, look at what’s happening to Ron Kim right now, when he spoke truth to power,” Mr. Walczyk said.

Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, on Wednesday publicly accused the governor of threatening him over the phone if he did not help contain damage from the nursing home scandal.

FBI spokeswoman Lauren Hagee Glintz said Thursday that the FBI cannot confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

The U.S. Justice Department and state Eastern District of New York declined to comment, and would not confirm or deny a federal probe. The department opened an inquiry Aug. 26, 2020, requesting the numbers of public congregate facilities. Justice Department counsel sent a subsequent inquiry Oct. 28 requesting data from the state’s private nursing homes.

“As we publicly said, DOJ has been looking into this for months,” Rich Azzopardi, the governor’s senior adviser, said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “We have been cooperating with them and we will continue to.”

Federal investigators will not publicly announce a probe, the Assembly Minority spokesperson said.

“Look at how the Tish James report went,” the representative said of state Attorney General Letitia James’ Jan. 28 report that revealed the state’s COVID-19 nursing home deaths were underreported by at least half.

“That report just came out,” the Assembly spokesperson continued. “There was no publicity around that or what they had or what they were compiling at all.”

Republican representatives in the Senate Minority Conference plan to introduce a measure to form an Impeachment Commission to gather facts and circulate the measure to all members who could sign on as sponsors. The measure is expected to be introduced late next week.

State Senator Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said she believes the investigation into the governor’s handling of information about COVID-19 related nursing home deaths will “deliver the clarity New Yorkers deserve.”

“New Yorkers want transparency, especially during a public health emergency of this magnitude,” she said in a statement Thursday. “For nearly a year now though, there have been many unanswered questions when it comes to the handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The senator said she believes it’s important to remember the families still grieving over the loss of family in nursing homes.

“I am hopeful, for their sake, we will soon have the full truth,” she said.

More than 15,000 New York nursing home residents died from COVID-19 complications since the state’s first official case March 1 of last year, including those outside facilities in hospitals or hospice and presumed virus fatalities when testing was scarce at the start of the pandemic. The state reported just under 9,000 deaths at the end of January.

“No one has taken the step toward impeachment, and this isn’t us saying Andrew Cuomo should be impeached,” a spokesperson with the Assembly Republican Conference said Thursday. “This is us saying the Legislature should investigate the facts of the cover-up, anyone involved, et cetera, and make a determination based on those findings if impeachment is warranted.”

Democrats and Republicans continue to increase pressure on legislative colleagues for an independent investigation of the state’s COVID-19 policies in nursing homes and its six-month delay to release total virus death counts in adult care facilities.

Assembly Republicans proposed forming an eight-member impeachment panel, including two appointees each from each of the four legislative leaders. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, would jointly appoint one co-chair with a second co-chair appointed by Barclay and Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.

The bipartisan impeachment panel would have the same powers of a legislative committee, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and compel records, correspondence and documents related to the matter be produced, according to the office of Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski.

The resolution to create the panel will go through designated legislative committees similar to a bill. If passed, the committee must conduct its investigation and submit findings to the Legislature within 60 days.

“For the Legislature, for the state government, here’s a way to take a step of investigating and determining whether impeachment is necessary,” the Assembly spokesperson said, adding of using subpoena power, “The majorities do have that authority, they just haven’t used it.”

The Senate Democratic Majority has proposed legislation creating a 10-person bipartisan Commission on Emergency Powers to review actions taken by Cuomo, according to Senate representatives Thursday.

“This legislation creates a bipartisan Select Legislative Commission on Oversight of State Declarations of Emergency that will end the executive’s current authority to issue unilateral directives and require any future directives to be approved by the commission,” according to the Senate Majority Conference. “The commission would have the authority to approve/disapprove a series of emergency actions by the governor.”

The commission is slated to have eight voting members appointed by Democrats and two Republican-appointed members. The action would more closely monitor and evaluate Cuomo’s decisions, but not curb his expanded authority, which is set to expire April 30.

Any directive proposed by Cuomo would be subject to approval by the commission within 72 hours.

The Legislature has had the power to overturn any executive action Cuomo makes during an emergency without the governor’s approval.

“But the Legislature is not being briefed or informed about the details of each action, making it difficult to use this power,” according to the Senate Majority.

If passed, the commission could disapprove the governor’s suspension or modification of a law within 72 hours. If no action is taken by then, the suspension or modification would automatically become effective, according to Senate Democrats.

The commission would allow Cuomo to unilaterally declare a state of emergency, but require commission members to vote to extend the state of emergency after the initial maximum six-month period.

“Although I welcome my colleagues in the Majority who are at long last mulling revocation of the governor’s emergency powers, their action is long overdue,” Ortt said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, the inaction by my colleagues in the Majority effectively enabled this behavior by the governor and his administration, and delayed these important details from being made public.

“They, too, are implicated in this cover-up scandal and they have forfeited the public’s trust,” he added.

A bill to establish the commission was not filed as of press time Thursday.

Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has sponsored legislation for an independent investigation into the state’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes since last August, spoke out against the Senate Majority’s proposal Thursday. Tedisco repeated his conference’s months-long call for a full repeal of Cuomo’s emergency powers granted by the Legislature.

Republican senators have proposed a resolution to limit Cuomo’s broadened authority 14 times since the 2021-22 session started Jan. 6. Democrats have unanimously voted against the resolution each time.

Representatives from Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the Senate or Assembly’s reported plans to rescind the governor’s broadened authority or to form an Impeachment Commission.

Last week, the New York Post first reported Cuomo’s top aide, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, admitted the administration intentionally delayed publishing total nursing home fatalities out of fear of political retaliation on Twitter from now-former President Donald Trump and potential federal prosecution.

Cuomo and his administration have argued they did not intentionally underreport the state’s number of nursing home deaths, but paused gathering nursing home data requested by the Legislature in August because of the Justice Department’s inquiry about New York’s COVID-19 deaths in congregate facilities.

Cuomo and his top aides did not publicly announce their pause of gathering nursing home data for the Legislature to satisfy the federal inquiry.

Representatives from the governor’s office have not answered repeated questions about what data the state sent the Justice Department and when.

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Watertown Daily Times reporter Alex Gault contributed to this report.

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