Cuomo's Misdeeds Were Not Secrets. We've All Known for a Long Time | Opinion

While covering Andrew Cuomo as a local news reporter, I happened on a scoop that taught me everything I needed to know about the New York governor, currently beset by accusations of sexual misconduct and covering up huge numbers of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. My scoop had to do with another epidemic: In 2015, Cuomo formed an HIV Task Force with the goal of getting new HIV infections below 750 a year. But the Cuomo administration was slow to release the task force's findings, which had been withheld for months, much to the frustration of advocates and care providers in the field. In classic local news reporter fashion, I found out while reporting out another story that the governor was planning to release the long-awaited report after activists had threatened to hold a big rally in Albany to put pressure on him.

To confirm the scoop, I made a call to someone involved in the event. I identified myself as a reporter doing a story and asked if it was true that activists had planned a rally. The person laughed and said yes, "to force the governor's hand." I thanked him and wrote the story. Within minutes of it being published, I had an email from his PR rep telling me that I'd misquoted the source, and this is what he'd actually said. The new quotes included effusive praise of Cuomo as a savior.

At first, I was confused. He hadn't said any of those things on our relatively short call. I explained to the PR rep that they were mistaken, but that I could probably ask my editor to add something to the story if they wanted. Their client was not pleased, and launched into what would be a full week of furious, character-assassinating emails demeaning me and my journalism.

I couldn't understand it. I hadn't done anything wrong. Why was this person so mad at me? I got one of the abusive emails while covering an event with another reporter and started to cry. He asked what was wrong, and I showed him the email. He looked at it, handed back my phone and said, "Ten bucks says the governor's office is BCC'd on all of those emails. Maybe even the governor himself. Just ignore it. Your guy has to perform penance; everyone will move on eventually."

That was how I learned how the Cuomo administration seems to operate. I started to identify "corrections" in other stories that implied similar retroactive dynamics. The message to all journalists covering him was loud and clear: People who tell the truth are punished. Any critical reporting would lead to a person's source feeling like they'd been burned.

The governor's explosive temper and his obsession with his image in the media resulted in other difficulties covering him. I remember another scoop I happened upon, which I was able to confirm with the leaders of several different organizations, all of whom begged me not to use their names, begged me to understand that they couldn't possibly call out the governor. When I asked why, they explained that their organizations provided services as well as the advocacy they did, and they couldn't compromise the state funding they got. I insisted that if the governor tied up their funding, we could write about that too; we'd hold him accountable. But they knew how powerful he was. He made sure everyone knew.

This is why I am dubious that the Cuomo will be facing justice, even in this moment, when three women have accused him of sexual harassment and tens of thousands of seniors are dead, many due to his alleged mishandling of nursing homes—the same nursing homes he made sure had corporate immunity, that have ties to some of his biggest donors.

It's true that it's unprecedented for so many people to speak openly about Cuomo—more than three dozen to the New York Times, apparently, even before the harassment claims became public—but many of his alleged misdeeds had been reported out for years, to no avail.

Governor Cuomo news conference September 2020
New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives for a news conference on September 08, 2020 in New York City. Cuomo has not taken questions from the press in more than a week in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Spencer Platt/Getty

Three years ago, New York Magazine reported of Cuomo that "when he's criticized, his first reaction—often deployed through surrogates or staffers—is to belittle or intimidate." The New Yorker, just last year, quoted different people characterizing Andrew as "inclined toward tyranny" and "an authoritarian" and calling him "Quid Pro Cuomo."

Meanwhile, his defenders mimic his toxic masculinity: Cuomo senior adviser Rich Azzopardi called three female lawmakers "f**king idiots" on the record. Ken Sunshine, an old friend of his father's who remains on hand to defend Andrew in the press and who is regularly appointed to various boards and task forces, told the New York Times that being verbally abusive is acceptable because he and Andrew are from New York. "Has he raised his voice on calls with me? I'm sure he has," Sunshine said. "Have I done it sometimes? Sure. And by the way, we're from a place called New York. It's not for the timid."

I was actually born and raised in New York City and it simply isn't true that New Yorkers are somehow genetically primed to thrive in abusive workplaces. Being berated is not a badge of honor, and it's an insult to suggest it is. There's nothing uniquely "New York" about bullying your way into positive press coverage.

And for Cuomo, it's always about the press. A post-mortem of his marriage to Kerry Kennedy reflected a culture clash that couldn't sustain a marriage, one that began with Cuomo famously telling a group of reporters and PR flacks, "I'm planning to ask Kerry to marry me... How do you think it will play?"

That's something to always remember about Cuomo: He is a headline governor. "State health officials said they often found out about major changes in pandemic policy only after Mr. Cuomo announced them at news conferences—and then asked them to match their health guidance to the announcements," the New York Times reported a month ago in a story about how nine health officials had resigned during the pandemic because of Cuomo's alleged mismanagement.

Then one of New York's 150 assembly members happened to break the code of silence and tell the truth about a phone call in which the governor's secretary, Melissa DeRosa, outright told legislators that the administration had purposely withheld information about coronavirus nursing home deaths. Worse, that Assemblymember, Ron Kim, went ahead and told the truth again, after the governor threatened him for telling the truth to begin with. Somehow, for once, national television decided to care, and Cuomo didn't realize that by lashing out with a years-old grudge, he was doing exactly what Kim told the public he would do.

Suddenly, incredibly, it seems like after years of being untouchable, Andrew Cuomo might see consequences for his actions and his lies. But it will only matter if voters decide to care, and the people with the power to do so follow through with holding him accountable.

Danielle Tcholakian is a freelance writer based in upstate NY. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, Vice and The Cut, among other outlets.

The views in this article are the writer's own.