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New York Democrat Ron Kim Discusses Nursing Home Reform, Cuomo Controversy

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: In addition to investigating Governor Cuomo, the New York state Legislature is also moving to repeal the immunity from lawsuits that nursing homes were granted early on in the pandemic. Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens is sponsoring that bill. He spoke with MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What was the immunity provision?

RON KIM: The corporate immunity provision was something that - Governor Cuomo forced it into the budget in the last hour in April 2 of 2020 at the peak of the pandemic. He did this immediately after he issued an order to send close to 9,000 COVID patients untested into unprepared nursing home facilities last March.

INSKEEP: Let's try to understand the rationale here. Hospitals are overwhelmed. It's the peak of the pandemic in New York. Cuomo is saying nursing homes must take these patients off the hands of hospitals. And he wanted to give them legal immunity for whatever happened. Was that the rationale?

KIM: Right. They lobbied him and wrote the language that would not hold these executives in the businesses and the shareholders criminally liable - or could be sued in the court. Now, this is a very dangerous thing because, as you know, when the state fails to protect the residents, the last recourse that families have is the courts. And he took that away from the families. Imagine giving the CEOs, executives, the trustees, the corporations behind these facilities more or less a blanket corporate immunity at the peak of the pandemic. It served as a disincentive, where they no longer felt obligated to spend every dollar they had to invest in PPE and hire staff.

INSKEEP: If I'm not mistaken, you had a relative who died in a nursing home.

KIM: Yes, at the peak when I was helping other constituents, my uncle Son Kim (ph), who had dementia for about eight years or so, passed away of presumed COVID in late April in here in Queens, N.Y.

INSKEEP: Is your bill that would remove this immunity from nursing homes in any way retroactive, meaning would it make it possible for someone to sue a nursing home where a relative died in July of 2020, say?

KIM: That's ultimately the courts to decide. But my intent is for families to be retroactively restored.

INSKEEP: Some weeks ago, you accused the governor of threatening to destroy you during a phone call. That became a very public dispute. The governor's staff denied that he said exactly that. In your view, is that phone call representative of the governor's style?

KIM: Absolutely. There is a pattern of him abusing his position of power. You know, I received that threatening call from the governor the same night the news broke about his top aide, secretary Melissa DeRosa, admitting to a nursing home cover-up in a private meeting. And to be clear, Steve, what I feared the most from that moment was not the governor bullying me or any of that. It was more about the governor escaping accountability for the cover-up.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

KIM: He not only threatened my career. He ordered me to issue a statement that countered what I heard from his top aide, to essentially lie that I didn't hear Melissa DeRosa say the administration covered up data because out of fear of the Department of Justice using that information for political reasons. He ordered me in the phone call to issue a statement to say, oh, no, you heard wrong. Melissa said it was about doing the federal inquiry first, and then we're going to get to the state. That is a statement you're going to put out tonight, not tomorrow, tonight. Those are his words.

INSKEEP: You didn't do that, I guess.

KIM: I did not do that. I mean, I was not going to break the law or be unethical because the governor needed to protect himself.

INSKEEP: There's so much to ask about Governor Cuomo that we have to go on to another topic, which is the accusations of harassment by several women, as well as general accusations of bullying against the governor. Some lawmakers in New York state have said that Governor Cuomo should resign. Should he?

KIM: Absolutely. And every day, those calls are getting louder and louder. And more people are now converting into pursuing impeachment. So all these credible allegations I believe. And we have now a duty to remove him while he is thoroughly investigated, so we can get back to the business at hand, which is passing a budget that works for the people of New York.

INSKEEP: The governor, as you know, has apologized for some misbehavior, which he says was not intentional and has said that removing someone from an elected office based on mere allegations is not democracy. Is there anything to that?

KIM: I believe in the older Andrew Cuomo, who said there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault. That's the standard that it applied. That's the law that he helped pass and sign. And he should be held to the same standard.

INSKEEP: Ron Kim is a member of the state Assembly in New York state. Thanks so much. Appreciate your time.

KIM: Thank you so much, Steve. Take care. Bye-bye.

DETROW: We reached out to Governor Cuomo's office for comment. His aides say Kim's account of a phone call with the governor distorts the truth. And they repeat that Cuomo will not resign because of allegations alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.