A new book by Andrew Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, tries to paint the downfall of the New York governor as the product of conspiracy — sweeping aside the administration’s scandalous handling of senior care during COVID.
Then New York governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing and makes an announcement to combat the COVID-19 Delta variant, August 2, 2021. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)
A new memoir by Melissa DeRosa, the former top aide to Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo, paints a rosy picture of the ex-governor’s tenure — in particular, rewriting his record on nursing homes during the pandemic. She portrays Cuomo as a martyr, brought down from power not by his own failures but rather by an incredibly broad conspiracy of actors.
DeRosa has stated that her memoir, What’s Left Unsaid: My Life at the Center of Power, Politics & Crisis, is “not a burn book.” If it were an attempt at revenge, it would be ineffective. As reputation laundering, though, it is worth more consideration: the memoir attempts to rehabilitate Cuomo and insulate him from accountability. In the case of the preventable nursing home deaths, our investigative reporting — years before DeRosa’s book was drafted — undermines her narrative.
DeRosa spends a great deal of the book focused on what she calls the “politicization of COVID” in nursing homes. In particular, she expends significant ink on an instance in which a press-conference flub made it appear as though she was admitting that her administration was underreporting the number of people who died in nursing homes during the pandemic.
“We froze,” DeRosa said in February 2021, saying it was because “we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.” (Of course, she denies this allegation, saying that her words were misinterpreted.)
She mentions nursing homes 103 times throughout the book, if you’re counting. But while vindicating herself for what was, in the end, a relatively small press-conference snafu, she entirely glosses over the larger nursing home–related scandal that plagued the Cuomo administration.
As the pandemic began, Cuomo passed a budget that included a little-noticed provision giving nursing home and hospital executives sweeping immunity from liability for “any harm or damages alleged to have been sustained as a result of an act or omission in the course of arranging for or providing health care services” to address the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Greater New York Hospital Association, or GNYHA — a lobbying group for hospital systems, including some that own nursing homes — said it “drafted and aggressively advocated for” the immunity provision, as we reported.
A report by Democratic New York attorney general Letitia James found that the immunity provisions “can provide financial incentives to for-profit nursing home operators to put residents at risk of harm by refraining from investing public funds to obtain sufficient staffing to meet residents’ care needs, to purchase sufficient [personal protective equipment] for staff, and to provide effective training to staff to comply with infection control protocols during pandemics and other public health emergencies.”
New York lawmakers ultimately repealed the immunity law.
DeRosa fixates on accusations about mass nursing home deaths in her book, stating that those numbers were attributable not to any form of governmental mismanagement, but to the simple fact that COVID-19 hit New York before much of the rest of the country. But she never once mentions the hospital and nursing home lobbying group, GNYHA, which bankrolled her boss as he guaranteed their legal immunity.
And while she does write about her insecurities regarding her own lobbyist father’s impact on her entry into politics, she does not mention that her father, brother, and sister were employed by Bolton-St Johns, a firm that was lobbying in Albany (and still does) on behalf of GNYHA. Bolton-St Johns gave Cuomo’s campaign $40,000 during his 2018 reelection, and donated $1.3 million to the Cuomo-controlled New York State Democratic Committee that year.
DeRosa spends most of the book naming her (and Cuomo’s) various enemies: Democratic New York state representative Ron Kim, who led the push to repeal Cuomo’s COVID-19 immunity law; former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who is described as having a “particularly toxic” relationship with Cuomo’s office; New York Magazine health and public policy writer Rebecca Traister, who DeRosa dismisses as a “self-described feminist” and accuses of writing “hit pieces”; among many others. (All of them are conveniently listed in the book’s “Dramatis Personae” section).
Those who were lost in the nursing homes during the early days of the pandemic, though, don’t warrant a single named mention. Neither do those bereaved families who attempted to sue those nursing homes for negligence, only to find themselves foiled by Cuomo’s liability law.
The real world is not the TV show The West Wing, though DeRosa certainly compares herself and others to showrunner Aaron Sorkin’s imaginary idealized politicians as she tells her story. In this world, an antiheroine like her is not guaranteed a redemption arc. And Cuomo’s preemptive absolution of those who failed to care for the elderly during the first years of the pandemic continues to provide a model for how senior- and health-care executives can avoid accountability for shoddy care of vulnerable patients.
A few days after Cuomo’s resignation, new governor Kathy Hochul released a report admitting that twelve thousand more New York state residents had died of COVID-19 than Cuomo’s administration had reported. About a quarter of those dead were nursing home residents.
This is something for which, in nearly four hundred pages of DeRosa’s memoir, she never answers.
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