Elizabeth Dufort, a former medical director of the Division of Epidemiology who was identified as “State Entity Employee # 2” in one of the transcripts released by the Attorney General’s Office, told investigators that working conditions in the Ministry of Health had deteriorated that some employees had asked the Public Employees Association, one of the state’s largest unions, if they had any remedies when it came to things like unpaid overtime. (They were allegedly informed that it “was not illegal during a public health emergency.”) The union did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite their expertise and long hours, several former employees said, decisions that should have come from DOH experts – such as where to send personal protective equipment – were often passed through Cuomo’s inner circle.
For example, the department would conduct daily surveys of nursing homes and other facilities to see what PPEs were needed and collect packages to be sent from the state warehouse. At one point, Larry Schwartz – a longtime Cuomo ally and former secretary to the governor, who at the time was C-suite director at the airport provider OTG – had to acknowledge these requests and at times questioned their need, the former employee said. . Schwartz and other former aides had returned during the pandemic to work in a “volunteer capacity.”
This system of direct approval was originally intended to override bureaucratic delays and manage inventory in the early days of the pandemic, former Cuomo administration officials said. But it evolved to reinforce an image of densely concentrated power that was possessed only by the people Cuomo trusted.
“He pushed back and said, ‘How exactly do you think it is? … Do you think they’re trying not to buy it themselves, to get us to supply it?’ I remember he asked that question a few times and I thought, “Listen, Larry, they need it,” said the former health ministry employee. [governor’s office] Pass.”
Two former officials defended the roles played by Cuomo’s office staff and inner circle in the pandemic, saying they were never intended to replace public health experts, but rather to work as liaisons, organizers and leaders on behalf of the governor. They spoke regularly with state and local health officials when Cuomo was not, they said. Inquiries about personal protective equipment were made to properly measure supply and demand, not to hold back any supplies, they said.
In his interview with the Attorney General’s Office, Dufort described “a toxic work environment” in which State Department employees were not allowed to work with their colleagues in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or other local health departments. The governor’s office would also arbitrarily override certain measurements, such as which regions qualified for different Covid “zones,” which Cuomo used to delineate the level of reopening restrictions in certain regions of the state. And the office had ordered staff from the Ministry of Health to share incomplete data on Hydroxychloroquine with the White House. Both things, Dufort said, raised ethical concerns in the department.
“Data were not ready to be shared in a way that would be ethical or appropriate,” she told investigators of the Hydroxychloroquine request. But the governor’s office insisted the department shared the incomplete data, Dufort said. She said she was prepared to step down instead of handing over the information.