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ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched into a heated criticism Wednesday of one of the most vocal critics of his COVID-19 nursing home policies, a state assemblyman who claims the governor threatened to "destroy" him on a private phone call.
On a conference call with reporters, Cuomo, a Democrat, delivered a lengthy and targeted rebuke of Assemblyman Ron Kim, also a Democrat, going as far to suggest the lawmaker has a "continuing racket" in which campaign contributions influence his positions on state policy.
At the time of the call, Cuomo said his criticism of Kim was in response to the lawmaker circulating a letter that accuses the governor of engaging in obstruction of justice by withholding the true COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes for months.
But shortly after the call ended came another potential explanation: In a report by CNN, Kim accused Cuomo of calling last week and suggesting he could "destroy" the lawmaker.
The hostile back-and-forth marked the latest development in a turbulent period for Cuomo, who is facing calls for an investigation after his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told lawmakers last week that the state "paused" the release of certain COVID-19 nursing home data after receiving an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Justice last year.
The U.S. Justice Department has been examining the governor’s coronavirus task force and trying to determine whether the state intentionally manipulated data regarding deaths in nursing homes, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
The Times Union of Albany first reported Wednesday that prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn had also become involved in an inquiry.
Cuomo's angry rebuke came two days after striking a calmer, more contrite tone, defending his administration's handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes while acknowledging he should have better prioritized the release of public data and information.
By Wednesday, Cuomo was in full fight-back mode, again suggesting the criticism of his policies — specifically a March 25 Department of Health order keeping nursing homes from rejecting resident admission on the sole basis of a positive COVID-19 test — is politically driven by Republicans.
Cuomo saved his most searing criticism for Kim, who has repeatedly and publicly called Cuomo out for his nursing home performance, including withholding the number of residents who died of COVID-19 after being transferred to hospitals until Jan. 28.
"My office, more than me, has had a long and hostile relationship with Ron Kim," Cuomo said before citing a New York Times story that found Kim received campaign contributions from nail salon owners around the same time he reversed his position on a bill that imposed tougher restrictions on them.
"The euphemism is pay to play and I believe Mr. Kim acted unethically if not illegally in that matter," Cuomo said.
Angry phone call followed leaked meeting
By the time of Cuomo's conference call Wednesday, CNN had already reached out to Cuomo's office about Kim's recounting of a phone call between the two men last Thursday, according to the news outlet's report.
The phone call came one day after the private Zoom call Feb. 17 between state lawmakers and members of Cuomo's office, in which DeRosa suggested the state "paused" an effort to gather data and information — including the full nursing home death toll, which now exceeds 13,000 — for state lawmakers after DOJ began requesting information about nursing homes.
In the meeting, DeRosa suggested Cuomo's administration "froze" in part because it feared "what we start saying was going to be used against us" by former President Donald Trump's DOJ, according to a partial transcript released by the governor's office after the New York Post obtained an audio recording.
Kim, who was on the call with Cuomo's office, was critical of DeRosa's comments in the original Post report, which was published Feb. 18.
That spurred a call from Cuomo, which Kim said was threatening, with Cuomo suggesting he could "destroy" Kim and that Kim hadn't seen his "wrath."
"Gov. Cuomo called me directly on Thursday to threaten my career if I did not cover up for Melissa [DeRosa] and what she said," Kim said, according to CNN. "He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience."
Cuomo, Kim offer differing accounts
Cuomo's recounting of his phone call with Kim was different, and his office has denied Cuomo threatened to "destroy" him.
In a statement Wednesday, Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said he was in the room and overheard Cuomo's call with Kim. Azzopardi accused Kim of "lying."
"At no time did anyone threaten to 'destroy' anyone with their 'wrath' nor engage in a 'coverup,'" Azzopardi said. "That's beyond the pale and is unfortunately part of a years-long pattern of lies by Mr. Kim against this administration."
The governor said he called Kim because the lawmakers' comments in the Post weren't in line with what the lawmaker said during the meeting with Cuomo administration officials the day before, which Cuomo characterized as positive.
"I called him up and I said I don't understand," Cuomo said Wednesday. "You said positive things in a meeting and then you told the Post negative things."
Cuomo said Kim claimed he was "misquoted," to which Cuomo urged him to issue a statement saying as much.
'There is nothing to investigate': Cuomo defends NY's handling of COVID in nursing homes
Kim denies the Post misquoted him, though he told The New York Times he did try to get the Post to remove his quotes before receiving the governor's call. He told the Times that Cuomo later tried to pressure him into releasing a statement that essentially said he misheard DeRosa's comments.
“Basically, I saw a crime and he’s asking me to say that I did not see that crime,” Kim told the Times. “I heard what I heard and I can’t lie.”
After Cuomo's media call Wednesday, Kim issued a statement saying state lawmakers have "a duty to uncover the truth behind the nursing home deaths and the governor's explanations do not add up."
"The governor can smear me all he wants in an effort to distract us from his fatally incompetent management," Kim said in his statement. "But these facts are not going away because they are the facts — unacceptable facts that hold him accountable."
Azzopardi said Cuomo's team did not threaten any lawmakers.
"To be clear, neither the Governor nor his aides threatened any legislators and in fact, the meeting in (question) was considered positive by those who attended," he said.
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo accused of angrily threatening vocal critic