Larry Schwartz, the former top Cuomo aide who now coordinates New York State’s COVID response and vaccine-distribution efforts, has reached out to county executives to see if they remain loyal to the embattled governor, according to reports from the New York Times and Washington Post. One county executive was disturbed enough by Schwartz’s efforts that they have begun the process of filing an ethics complaint with the state attorney general’s office. While none of the officials reported any explicit threats regarding vaccine distribution — which the Cuomo administration controls — the timing of the outreach and the person who was making it remains alarming, as the Times notes in its report:
According to two Democratic county executives, Mr. Schwartz has placed calls to them in recent weeks, inquiring about their loyalty to the governor amid a series of sexual harassment allegations that have led many congressional Democrats, including both the state’s senators, to demand Mr. Cuomo’s resignation. In one case, a county executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that after Mr. Schwartz had discussed the governor’s political situation, he then pivoted directly to a conversation about vaccine distribution. In another example, a second county executive said Mr. Schwartz called immediately after a different Cuomo administration official had called about vaccine distribution in the county.
Other officials told the Times and Post that either vaccines didn’t come up, or they didn’t get the sense that the loyalty gauging was transactional or threatening with regards to vaccine access — though some acknowledged they could understand how the outreach could be seen as problematic. And if there’s one thing Cuomo and his administration are known for, it’s taking the governor’s bully pulpit literally.
The county executive who is filing an ethics complaint told the Post, “At best, it was inappropriate. At worst, it was clearly over the ethical line:
[The official] said that Schwartz made no explicit threat to withhold vaccines, but felt there was an implication of what was at stake, given Schwartz’s influence over the vaccine distribution channels and the fact that he only called or emailed to discuss vaccine allotment. “I’m not calling about vaccines,” Schwartz told the executive, then stressed that it was crucial to let the investigation by the attorney general play out, according to the executive. …
“There was a lot going through my mind,” the executive recounted. “This is putting me in an impossible position where I potentially have to choose between like a weird political loyalty to a governor who controls a lot of things, not just vaccine, and is known to be vindictive, and on the other side, doses of lifesaving vaccine every week for my residents who are literally desperate for them.”
The Times notes that the county officials it talked to requested anonymity out of fear their comments would affect their access to the state’s limited vaccine supply, while the Post says several officials wanted their names withheld “saying they fear swift retribution from Cuomo if they speak out against him.” For months, local officials throughout the state have reportedly been expressing concern that the Cuomo administration has been wielding access to the vaccines as a political tool to reward or punish them. The Post also notes that Schwartz’s outreach to county officials predated the administration’s March 8 announcement of the locations of ten new mass-vaccination sites across the state. It’s not clear if any of the new sites were in counties where Schwartz contacted officials.
Multiple county officials also spoke with NPR, again under the condition of anonymity:
[They] viewed the calls from [Schwartz] as an implicit threat — voice displeasure with the governor and the vaccine valve for their county would be turned off. “I’m afraid of that man,” one local official said. “Why in God’s name would that man have called? People were terrified.” …
One county official said that during regular conference calls with more than 100 county officials and staff, Schwartz would routinely refer to the vaccine as his own: “If I have extra vaccine.” If there were extra doses available and executives wanted access to them, this official told NPR that Schwartz would say: “Send me an email and I’ll consider it.” …
“Were any laws broken? No,” one source told NPR. But when a county official tasked with public health during a pandemic receives a call like that from the individual who controls their access to the vaccine, “How are they supposed to feel? The inference is there. I control the destiny,” he said, referring to Schwartz.
Schwartz, a personal friend and very close ally of Cuomo’s for more than 30 years, served as secretary to the governor from 2011 to 2015, then returned to the administration on an unpaid basis last spring to be its point person for the state’s COVID response — even moving in with the governor at the Executive Mansion for a time. As Cuomo’s COVID coordinator, he has been in regular contact with county officials throughout the pandemic. In statements to the Post, Schwartz insisted that he “did nothing wrong” and had only reached out to county officials regarding their views on Cuomo’s political crisis as the governor’s friend and ally. He claimed he did not talk about COVID vaccines with them, and did not ask for their support.
Though Schwartz “declined to answer if he had taken the ethics oath required for New York state public officers” to the Post, he wrote that “I have always conducted myself in a manner commensurate to a high ethical standard.” (As it turns out, according to a statement Cuomo counsel Beth Garvey sent the Post, volunteers on the COVID response like Schwartz are not required to take the ethics oath following an executive order by the governor.)
Explained Schwartz, “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.” He added that none of the recipients of the “cordial, respectful, and friendly” calls “indicated that they were uncomfortable or that they did not want to talk to me.” He also insisted that the decisions on where to locate the mass-vaccinations sites were “based on merit, data, and facts, and not politics,” and were made by the multiple people, including members of the administration’s vaccine task force and outside consultants.
USA Today has reported that the New York Department of Health has repeatedly refused requests to detail where it is distributing COVID vaccine doses week to week.
As David Freelander reported for Intelligencer a week ago, as the calls from state lawmakers for Cuomo to resign have grown and impeachment looms, the governor’s office has been contacting officials across the state to gauge and enlist their support, arguing that they should withhold judgment until the investigation into the allegations against Cuomo has been completed. On Friday, nearly all of New York’s congressional delegation publicly said that Cuomo should step down. Also on Friday, New York published Rebecca Traister’s in-depth cover story about the allegedly toxic and sexist work environment under the governor, particularly for young women, as well as journalist Jessica Bateman’s account of inappropriate conduct, including unwanted physical contact, toward her by Cuomo when she used to cover him for Politico New York. Afterward, Cuomo broadly attacked his accusers by implying their allegations were politically motivated, as were, he said, the wave of calls for him to resign from state lawmakers, who he said were “bowing to cancel culture.”
On Sunday morning, before the reports about Schwartz’s outreach to county officials came out, New York City mayor (and longtime Cuomo critic) Bill de Blasio blasted the governor for refusing to resign during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, arguing that Cuomo can no longer govern effectively and is thus “holding up our effort to fight COVID” and “literally in the way of us saving lives right now.”
This post has been updated to include additional reporting.