What COVID-19 Shows About Money in NY Politics

8 mins read

Do campaign contributions influence political decisions? Absent evidence of a quid pro quo, it’s almost impossible to tell, but we’ve always liked the layman’s answer: If one person hands you $5 and another gives $5,000, who are you gonna listen to?

It’d be great if we would all work for the greater good during a once-in-a-century pandemic, but unfortunately, crises all too often become opportunities for the powerful to strengthen their hands and enrich their wealthy allies. All of the stories in today’s Take show the need for real campaign finance reform in New York State. The workings of state government are incredibly complex, and we’ll never be able to say for certain why New York leaders made certain decisions, but we have too many reasons to be suspicious.

The New York Times reports that Cuomo aides inserted a provision into the most recently passed budget that shields certain nursing home operators, hospitals, other healthcare facilities, and much of their staffs from lawsuits related to Covid-19 deaths (except in cases of gross negligence or intentional criminal misconduct). The provision was originally written by the lobbying organization Greater New York Hospital Association, which also represents nursing homes. The Greater New York Hospital Association contributed $1.5 million to the New York State Democratic Party’s “housekeeping” account, which Cuomo controls, during the Governor’s 2018 re-election campaign. Cuomo has also taken numerous five-figure donations from the nursing home industry during his three runs for Governor. 

Cuomo’s team has defended the budget provision, arguing that it was essential to allow healthcare facilities to continue functioning in volatile circumstances without fear of crippling civil or criminal liability. Others have chimed in to support this position. Henry Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, stated that it would normally be “unthinkable” to provide this kind of immunity, but that it was “understandable” given the current circumstances. Still, this will be cold comfort for grieving families. Regardless of the merits of enacting the immunity provision into law, it’s not difficult to see how these families might wonder whether the Governor’s financial ties to the nursing home industry might have influenced his decision. 

That’s not all, of course (in NY, it never is). The official state tally of nursing home and adult care facility-related deaths recently topped 5,800, but the New York Post reports that the Department of Health is currently probing whether one facility drastically under-reported deaths related to the virus. The Post story also cites critics that allege a chronic lack of Covid-19 testing and under-reporting of virus-related deaths at several facilities. Critics also allege that the state itself exacerbated under-counting by changing reporting standards and initially failing to count deaths at certain facilities altogether.

Another city contractor, another major de Blasio donor. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is struggling as the city tries to disentangle itself from emergency contracts for medical equipment entered during the onset of COVID-19. Recently, New York City canceled a $91 million emergency contract for ventilators and other “breathing kits” when the vendor failed to deliver the goods, reports The City. The vendor, Digital Gadgets LLC, is owned by a major de Blasio donor, Charlie Tebele, who also sits on de Blasio’s Small Business Sector Advisory Council. A de Blasio spokesperson has stated that the contract was cancelled because the city decided to purchase another ventilator model. Problems have arisen between the City and vendors promising medical equipment in several instances, as the city bypassed standard vendor reviews in a frenzied effort to secure sufficient medical equipment.

And … yet another de Blasio story. Hizzoner is also under fire for reportedly delaying and softening the results of a Department of Education investigation into the quality of education in New York City yeshivas in exchange for votes to renew mayoral control of city schools, reports Gothamist. Last December, a report issued by the Department of Investigation found that de Blasio aides had deliberately stalled the investigation for at least a year, and had promised members of the orthodox community that the report would be gentle and cite progress (provided that progress was in fact continuing). De Blasio was then encouraged to use this information to ask certain members of the orthodox community to lobby their State Senate representative, Simcha Felder, and John Flanagan, the head of the New York Senate Republican caucus, to support a vote allowing for mayoral control of city schools. When the results of the Department of Education investigation were finally released, it showed that only 2 of 28 inspected yeshivas were providing the quality of secular education required by state law. All parties involved have denied any quid-pro-quo arrangement.   

The New York presidential primary is no longer in doubt, reports Gothamist. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision reinstating the primary, which will take place on June 23rd. The state had originally argued that canceling the primary would allow for the closure of hundreds of poll sites and the release of thousands of poll workers, steps that would arguably protect against the spread of Covid-19. The State has declined to petition the United States Supreme Court for a review.   

Upcoming events and actions:

  • Our #FixNYDemocracy campaign is back under way! (Previously #FixDemocracyFirst). Soon we’re going to start reaching out to candidates and making sure they commit to giving New York a stronger democracy. If you’re interested in becoming involved, please reach out to Tom at repusnyc@gmail.com.
  • The next statewide barnstorm is Monday at 8pm. If you’d like to join, please click here. Any questions should be directed to Andrew at representalbanyny@gmail.com.

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The Take

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RepresentUs NY is the NYC Chapter of RepresentUs, the nation’s largest grassroots, nonpartisan anti-corruption organization. For too long, political power has been concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and special interests. We fight back by passing tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America. Our all-volunteer chapter has been a key part of some of the biggest democracy reforms in New York City politics.

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