New York state’s vaccine czar has sparked ethics concerns after calling county executives to measure their support for embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid bipartisan calls for him to resign over sexual harassment allegations.
The calls from Larry Schwartz to county executives in recent weeks to gauge their support for Cuomo, which were first reported by The Washington Post, have also raised the concerns of the Biden administration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
The third-term Democratic governor has been rocked over the last few weeks by mounting sexual harassment allegations, which are being investigated by state Attorney General Letitia James’ office. Cuomo has acknowledged that he acted in ways that might have made people feel uncomfortable but denied ever touching anyone inappropriately.
Scores of state Democratic lawmakers have called on him to resign, as have most of New York’s congressional delegation and the state’s two Democratic senators, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. But Cuomo has vowed not to resign.
Schwartz was urging the county executives to wait until James’ probe was completed before passing judgment, the Post reported.
In one instance, Schwartz called a county executive immediately after the executive had got off the phone with another Cuomo administration official about vaccine distribution in the county.
The executive was concerned by the phone call and its timing, and the executive’s legal counsel filed a preliminary complaint with the state attorney general’s office’s public integrity bureau Friday, an official with direct knowledge of the complaint told The New York Times.
Schwartz told the Post, “I did nothing wrong.”
“I did have conversations with a number of county executives from across the state to ascertain if they were maintaining their public position that there is an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general and that we should wait for the findings of that investigation before drawing any conclusions,” Schwartz told the Post in an email.
Schwartz, a former longtime Cuomo aide who has been working as a volunteer in the vaccine effort, also told the paper, “I have always conducted myself in a manner commensurate to a high ethical standard.”
Schwartz told the Times there was no link between vaccine distribution and political considerations.
“At no time has politics ever entered into the discussion or decisionmaking regarding vaccines,” he said. “I have never discussed vaccines in a political context, and anyone who thinks that is seriously mistaken.”
Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, said in a statement that any suggestion Schwartz “acted in any way unethically or in any way other than in the best interest of the New Yorkers that he selflessly served is patently false.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone told WNBC in New York that he was one of the people whom Schwartz called about Cuomo’s political fortunes, and said the subject of vaccines for his county did not come up in the call.
“Last Friday, I had a conversation with Larry Schwartz who reached out to discuss whether I was supportive of the governor,” Bellone said. “I explained that there were serious allegations made and that I was supportive of an independent investigation. At no point did the topic of vaccine distribution come up during the call.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has already called on the governor to resign, said Monday “there needs to be an investigation of why a senior official In the governor’s office clearly tried to link vaccines to political support.”
The White House press secretary told reporters Monday that President Joe Biden finds the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo “troubling” and “hard to read,” but that the president hasn’t spoken to Cuomo about them.
“We were concerned of course about the reports of this inappropriate behavior,” Psaki said of the reports about Schwartz’s calls to county executives, adding that there are safeguards in place in states like New York to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably.
Biden said Sunday in his first remarks on the sexual harassment allegations, “I think the investigation is underway and we should see what it brings us.”
The investigation appears to be moving briskly. A lawyer for one of the accusers, former Cuomo adviser Charlotte Bennett, issued a statement saying her client had met with investigators over Zoom for more than four hours on Monday.
“She detailed her allegations of sexual harassment and provided the investigators with more than 120 pages of contemporaneous records, as well as other examples of documentary evidence, to corroborate her accusations against Gov. Cuomo and his senior staff,” said the attorney, Debra Katz.
Bennett told The New York Times late last month that Cuomo made several inappropriate remarks about her sex life, which she said she interpreted as an overture. Cuomo said in a statement after the report that, “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Cuomo, meanwhile, held an event Monday at a mass vaccination site where reporters were not allowed in and thus he did not take questions or address the issue.
The reports came as a Siena College Research Institute poll showed Cuomo’s once formidable approval ratings eroding, down to 43 percent from 56 percent last month.
The Siena poll did have some good news for the governor — 50 percent of respondents said he should not resign before the investigation is completed.
“While many elected officials — Democrats and Republicans alike — have called for Cuomo’s resignation, by a 50-35 percent margin, the voters of New York say Cuomo should not immediately resign,” pollster Steven Greenberg said in a report on the poll.
That’s in part because voters have not yet made up their minds about the scandals, Greenberg said. “While more voters, 35 percent, say Cuomo has committed sexual harassment than those who say he has not committed sexual harassment, 24 percent, the plurality of voters, 41 percent, are undecided,” he said.
Support for a possible fourth Cuomo term is also down, Greenberg noted. The poll showed 34 percent of voters said they are prepared to re-elect Cuomo if he runs again in 2022, while 52 percent said they would “prefer someone else,” down significantly from 46 percent to 45 percent in February.