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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faces growing criticism

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing a growing wave of criticism. State Assemblyman Ron Kim is one of the prominent voices accusing the governor of bullying tactics. The City reporter Christine Chung joined "CBSN AM" to talk about the controversy.

Video Transcript

- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing a growing wave of public criticism. The governor's fame skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic. Now, former aides and politicians from across the state are coming forward to describe a history of bullying and sexual harassment.

New York State Assembly member Ron Kim was one of the first to accuse the governor of trying to intimidate him. So I want to bring in Christine Chung. She's a reporter for the news platform The City. And she spoke with Kim about his battle with Cuomo.

So thank you very much for joining us. As we sort of pointed out, Governor Cuomo is facing criticism on a variety of fronts. We're not going to dig into all of them. I do want to start with the issue that came up that has sort of taken the bloom off his rose a little bit, if you will.

There has been criticism about the governor and the way he handled the pandemic in the early days, specifically in relation to nursing home deaths. And I remember when we would air his press briefings. And increasingly, there were questions about the numbers of people who died in nursing homes.

And not being in New York, I remember thinking, what are they getting at? Something wasn't jiving for a lot of the reporters. Can you just walk us through the details of this controversy?

CHRISTINE CHUNG: Sure. Thank you for having me. So in April of last year, there started to be signs that the number of nursing home deaths seemed to be obscured. There were a lot of relatives of nursing home residents starting to speak out about their inability, their frustrations, about not being able to get answers from nursing homes with regards to information about their parents, their relatives, COVID outbreaks, even if the staff were wearing appropriate PPE.

And it just started-- they just started to sound the alarm. And local elected officials, like assembly member Ron Kim who represents Flushing in Murray Hill in Queens, began to speak out and sound the alarm about what was happening, this dearth of information amid a growing fear that there was something really bad happening in these nursing homes across the state, and especially in the city.

- And so now that the governor is facing criticism, what we are also hearing is he doesn't take criticism well. And there have been some that have accused him of being a bully. That's actually not really a new accusation, I don't think. But can you explain to our viewers who Ron Kim is and why he's been able to challenge Cuomo?

CHRISTINE CHUNG: Sure. As I said, Kim is an assembly member who represents Flushing in Murray Hill, so he's very much a local elected official. He is very connected with the community that he represents. He is the chair of the Committee on Aging in the State Assembly. And he first started sounding the alarm in April about what he was seeing in nursing homes and, over the past several months, had been kind of trying to raise visibility on the issue, calling for the publication of data that would report nursing home deaths. Something that we hadn't seen until the last month when State Attorney General Letitia James essentially forced Cuomo's hand. She said that there was an underreporting of data, which is kind of the events that preceded what we've seen in the last couple of weeks when there was a story in The Post about two weeks ago about Governor Cuomo's top aide essentially admitting to lawmakers in a meeting, including Kim, that they had intentionally obscured the true death toll by something like nearly 50% in an effort to prevent the Department of Justice and the Trump administration, allegedly, from jeopardizing this information against them.

After this call, Cuomo, allegedly infuriated, called Ron Kim at his home on the weekend, I believe, essentially excoriating him for what he had said to the press. He had been quoted in that Post article, and essentially issuing a barrage of threats saying that his career was over should he not release a new revised statement to the news media outlet, essentially covering up, I guess, the extent of what had happened in the meeting, and saying that he had yet to see the true extent of the governor's wrath. And so Kim had told me and, a couple of other outlets as well, that this kind of behavior from Cuomo wasn't new. He had been on the receiving end of threats and, I guess, vitriolic comments before.

But for him, this time this incident crossed the line. He said it was essentially unethical. It was a crime. He did not want to be implicated in this. And it was enough for him to want to speak out this time despite fear that Cuomo would retaliate against him, something that we have seen in the news media a fair amount.

- And Kim's admission, sort of coming forward, has bolstered other people. And just to make sure that everyone kind of understands the backdrop here, right, we're talking about nursing homes that have been locked down for a year. So loved ones have not been able to see their family members. Family members have died, and they haven't been able to hold them.

And the reason that they were being given that they can't go into these nursing homes, obviously, is because they don't want to bring the coronavirus into the nursing homes. But the virus is getting in and people are dying. And so the governor's constituents are heartbroken and they want answers. Can you talk about how Kim's fight with the governor has been a catalyst for others to come forward as well?

CHRISTINE CHUNG: Kim's fight with the governor has essentially encouraged other people to speak out as well, essentially saying, hey, this happened to me, too. Governor Cuomo has essentially attacked me, has threatened me, has harassed me. There's been former aides who have spoken out. Bill de Blasio has chimed in, saying that many-- anyone, essentially who's worked with the governor has been on the receiving end of such threats and such, I guess, negative rapport on a phone call. And recently, a former top aide who is running for Manhattan borough president as well-- I believe her name is Lindsey Boylan-- she came out and said that for her, the experience had actually ventured into a territory more serious, that she had essentially been sexually harassed by the governor in the years that she worked for him.

- Yes, so we will all be watching to see how this unfolds. Christine Chung, thank you so much for sort of giving us the lay of the land and telling us where we are right now with this story. Thanks.