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ALBANY, N.Y. – Larry Schwartz, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's former top aide, has long been a close ally of the governor, so much so that he was tapped last year to help lead the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
But Schwartz recently played another role: calling Democratic county executives to gauge their support for Cuomo, who is battling for his political life amid myriad sexual harassment allegations.
Schwartz' lobbying for Cuomo, while at the same time having a major role in how life-saving vaccines are distributed, drew concern from local leaders and a rebuke from the president of the state Association of Counties and County Executives Association.
"There just can be no blurring of this line, and clearly they overstepped," said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican who ran against Cuomo in 2018.
"It is a very dangerous thing that they allowed to occur. There are members of the County Executives Association that feel quite clearly that the two were linked and are very, very alarmed. We all are."
One unnamed county executive told The Washington Post on Sunday that the call was so unsettling that the executive filed a preliminary notice to file an ethics complaint with the Attorney General's Office.
Another county executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to The New York Times, said Schwartz, a former deputy Westchester County executive, had discussed the governor’s political situation, and then pivoted to talk about vaccine distribution.
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Schwartz says characterizations are untrue
Schwartz, who left the Cuomo administration in 2015, has been working as a volunteer to help the vaccine program and stressed there was no quid pro quo, saying he never linked vaccines to politics.
" Vaccines and the administration of vaccines is above politics," he said in an email.
"The distribution and the administration of vaccines in New York state is based on a clear formula."
He said vaccine distribution is done with the help out of outside consultants and based on "public health considerations, not politics."
"At no time has politics ever entered into the discussion or decision making regarding vaccines," Schwartz continued. " I have never discussed vaccines in a political context and anyone who thinks that is seriously mistaken."
Westchester County Executive George Latimer confirmed Sunday that Schwartz called him recently to gauge Latimer's support for Cuomo, who is facing growing calls to resign and potential impeachment in the Legislature.
Latimer, who has said publicly that investigations of Cuomo should be completed before any decisions are made, said Schwartz never brought up vaccines. The two have had a relationship for decades.
Schwartz is a former deputy Westchester County executive under Andy Spano, one of Latimer's predecessors.
"It was not a long, drawn-out conversation, and when I finished with him, I didn’t think it was an untoward conversation," Latimer said. "But I recognize that he’s supportive of the governor and he’s polling. He’s trying to see where we are at."
Schwartz role in Cuomo administration
Molinaro said the calls have had a "chilling effect" not just on those who did receive one, but those who did not and still worry their vaccine dosages could be harmed by criticism of the governor in his time of political peril.
That fear is bolstered by a vaccine distribution process in which counties have seen their dosages increase and decrease week to week.
The state Department of Health has refused repeated requests by the USA TODAY Network to detail where it is distributing its doses on a week to week basis.
Cuomo brought Schwartz back in a volunteer capacity in March at the height of the pandemic in New York.
Schwartz served as Cuomo's top aide from 2011 through 2014 and is now chief strategy officer for airport concessions firm OTG. He was given a major role in overseeing hospital capacity and later put in charge of running the state's vaccination program.
Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, defended Schwartz, saying he "answered our call to volunteer in March" and has been working "night and day to help New York through this pandemic."
"Any suggestion that he 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," Garvey said in a statement.
Follow Joseph Spector on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NY vaccine coordinator called officials to gauge Andrew Cuomo support