THE BACKGROUND: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo entered 2021 seeing his reputation as a leader in the COVID-19 fight starting to fray. But nearly everyone expected it to be a year of triumph — over both his handling of the virus and anyone who stood in the way of an expected run for a fourth term.
Instead, trouble came in waves. In January, the state’s attorney general issued a report confirming that thousands more people had died of COVID-19 in New York’s nursing homes than Cuomo’s administration had previously acknowledged.
In February, a former adviser who had previously made a comment on social media about having been sexually harassed by the Democrat, published an essay detailing what she said were unwanted touches, suggestive comments and a kiss on the lips.
More women followed with tales of being leered at, subjected to questions about their sex lives and comments on their looks. One woman accused him of groping her breast.
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Onetime political allies called for Cuomo resignation, but he clung to office until August, when the state attorney general issued a report finding he had sexually harassed 11 women. He resigned as state legislators began to take steps toward impeachment.
In October he was accused in a criminal complaint of forcible touching, though it is yet unclear whether prosecutors will continue with the case.
And in December, the ex-governor’s brother, Chris Cuomo, was fired from his anchor job at CNN after new revelations that he’d tried to help Andrew discredit his accusers.
Here, The Associated Press reporter who covered the Cuomo administration reflects on the story and her own experiences.
MARINA VILLENEUVE, correspondent, Albany, N.Y.
THE WOMEN: In 2020, with the COVID pandemic, Cuomo became this huge, internationally known figure leading New York’s response, and he was holding daily press conferences for quite some time. And that was really interesting, because he had been known to be the kind of governor who didn’t typically have a lot of press availability.
Then, early this year when accusations of sexual harassment came up, when women were were coming forward with stories of sexual harassment against him, he didn’t have press availability anymore. Instead, he reverted to doing speeches and holding a couple of press conferences, His office was very protective of the governor throughout the past year, and I just had to remember to always be very skeptical of the answers I’d get from them.
And as this year unfolded, and we saw an attorney general’s report into sexual harassment allegations, and more records being released throughout the year, it was really fascinating to see how important it was to have that skepticism about the administration … and it’s a pretty unique opportunity to have there be an investigation that partly looks at how a governor’s administration was trying to spin and hide problems.
I definitely just felt a lot of pressure to responsibly report on these women’s stories, while also verifying everything.
I think it was really interesting to see how members of Cuomo’s circle, including his brother, really pushed to control the governor’s response, and tried to get a sense of what other allegations were out there and just how they were going to respond to the allegations.
I think it was really eye opening to see that evolution. And again, it reinforced the need to be skeptical about what we’re hearing from government officials. And I think it’s really not clear at all what the former governor is going to be doing now. We’re trying to keep an eye on whether he might return to the private sector anytime soon, or run for office in a few years.
THE NURSING HOMES: At the start of the pandemic in 2020, I and other reporters were asking a lot of questions about how COVID was impacting nursing homes, and the Cuomo administration would at times argue that releasing the data would jeopardize patients’ privacy. The governor also claimed that New York’s nursing homes were much less badly hit than other states, but he based that on partial data. And as the data came in — through my own reporting and others’ reporting as well — we learned that the administration wasn’t providing the full picture and was only reporting some deaths … to make it seem that there weren’t as many people dying of COVID in nursing homes. And there remain a lot of questions about whether the state could have done more to prevent deaths, whether any policies made outbreaks worse and what lessons there are going forward.
It felt pretty shocking because nursing home outbreaks were such a serious crisis, and you couldn’t really imagine that the approach of a government would be to mask how bad outbreaks were. So yeah, I guess it was shocking for me. I think for some other journalists who have been around longer covering the governor, they were aware of his reputation, or this New York style of sort of exaggeration, but it was shocking, for sure.
Early this year, the Attorney General’s Office released this big and thorough investigation that really confirmed what I and others at AP had pieced together. We did a lot of just calling up nursing homes and asking how many deaths there had been, or how many infections. And there would always be a lot of discrepancies between the federal data in the state data. There was a lot of trying to ask the health department about the reasons for those gaps or those discrepancies. And I did a story this summer just looking at how up until just before the governor resigned, New York was still reporting this lower, statewide death toll that did not include confirmed COVID deaths at people’s homes. It was only including confirmed COVID deaths at hospitals. And that’s something that the new governor changed on day one.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us
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