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Federal investigators are examining whether New York state officials gave priority access to COVID-19 testing to some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s close associates and his brother during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.
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The review of the testing marks an expansion of the probe that the investigators, based in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, opened in February to look at how the Cuomo administration handled COVID-19 in nursing homes.
Prosecutors have recently contacted and scheduled interviews with officials in the Democratic governor’s office who worked on the testing program, some of the people said.
The Wall Street Journal previously reported that people familiar with the testing program said COVID-19 specimens taken from state officials and other people close to the governor—including his brother, Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor—were given priority processing at a state laboratory. The testing was done in March and April of 2020, when testing resources were scarce.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment.
Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said administration officials went "above and beyond" to get people tested in the early days of the pandemic to identify cases and prevent the spread of the virus. "Among those we assisted were members of the general public, including legislators, reporters, state workers and their families," he said.
A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on Wednesday. A network spokesman previously said that in the early days of the pandemic, Chris Cuomo showed symptoms of the virus and "he turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would."
Chris Cuomo didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Prosecutors could be investigating the testing to see whether the Cuomo administration defrauded a healthcare program or corruptly used federal funds, said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor. "Fraud or corruption related to a healthcare program run by the state is a crime," he said. A federal corruption statute requires the amount of money involved to be at least $5,000.
The federal inquiry is one of three probes into Mr. Cuomo and his team.
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New York state Attorney General Letitia James is overseeing an investigation into accusations that Mr. Cuomo sexually harassed three former and two current aides in his office. Democrats who dominate the Assembly are conducting an impeachment investigation into the governor. The Assembly’s probe is looking at the harassment allegations, COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes and the COVID-19 testing program.
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Mr. Cuomo had said he did nothing wrong and his administration is cooperating with the various investigations. He also said he never touched anyone inappropriately and has apologized if his workplace behavior made anybody uncomfortable. He also said this month that the federal investigation was politically motivated because it was initiated during the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump, who sparred with Mr. Cuomo over the U.S. handling of the pandemic.
The Justice Department’s interest in Mr. Cuomo’s administration dates to last summer, when state officials refused requests from lawmakers, journalists and activists to release data on the number of nursing-home residents who died outside of their facilities.
In August and October, lawyers in the department’s Civil Rights and Civil divisions sought information from the state on the number of deaths in nursing homes. The state Department of Health fulfilled the requests on a rolling basis, state officials have said. The officials said they didn’t release figures on nursing-home residents who died outside their facilities because of concerns about data accuracy.
Eastern District prosecutors and investigators have recently interviewed multiple people—including at least three state legislators who were present for a Feb. 10 meeting with administration officials—about what data the health department gathered from nursing-home operators and when the collection began, according to people familiar with this situation.
Melissa DeRosa, Mr. Cuomo’s top aide, told legislators during the Feb. 10 meeting that the administration hadn’t fulfilled their requests for nursing-home death data because of fear that the information would be politicized by the Trump administration.
"Basically, we froze," Ms. DeRosa said in the meeting, according to the transcript reviewed by the Journal. "We were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys and what we start saying was going to be used against us and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation."
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State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, said he spoke with Eastern District investigators for several hours earlier this month. Mr. Rivera said federal agents asked about various administration officials and how they exchanged information with lawmakers.
The agents also asked about "American Crisis," Mr. Cuomo’s memoir about leading the state’s COVID-19 response, Mr. Rivera said. The book, for which the governor expects to be paid $5.1 million, was published in October.
"The investigators were interested in a variety of topics from what were the requirements set by the DOH for nursing homes to the governor’s interactions with the Legislature since the pandemic started," Mr. Rivera said in a statement.
Investigators also asked lawmakers and other legislative officials about the development of a 2020 law that granted civil and criminal immunity for health facilities including nursing homes, according to people familiar with the matter.
Critics of the immunity law, which was repealed in April, say it led to poor patient care. Supporters, including Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and nursing-home operators, have said the law was necessary to recruit volunteer medical personnel to hospitals.
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