Merrick Garland vows DOJ Cuomo nursing home probe will avoid conflicts of interest

US attorney for the Southern District of New York is mother-in-law of top Cuomo aide

Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland pledged Monday that the Justice Department would avoid conflicts of interest in any investigation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the state’s nursing home crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York is reportedly in the early stages of an investigation into the Cuomo administration. The probe, first reported by the Albany Times-Union, is said to be focused on members of Cuomo’s coronavirus task force, which includes Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa.

DeRosa is the senior Cuomo administration aide who admitted his office withheld data on nursing home deaths out of concern it could be used in a federal investigation. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Garland on the situation during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, pointing out that Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, is DeRosa’s mother-in-law.

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"In this instance, the acting US attorney is the mother-in-law of the senior official of the Cuomo administration that admitted to the cover-up," Cruz said. "Will you at least commit to not having the investigation done by a person with a conflict of interest?"

"Of course," Garland said in response. "I don’t know any of the facts, but I can guarantee that a person with a conflict of interest will not be the person running an investigation of any kind."

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Few details have emerged about the DOJ probe into the Cuomo administration. Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to the governor, said his administration is cooperating with federal officials.

Since the case is reportedly led by US Attorney Seth DuCharme of New York’s Eastern District, it’s unclear what role, if any, the Southern District will have in the investigation. When asked about the case, Garland declined to go into specifics.

"With all of these investigations, the Justice Department is open to evidence of fraud, false statements, violations of the law," Garland said on the case. "They normally begin in the appropriate way, in the relevant US Attorney’s office. That is the way something like this, without commenting on this in particular because I don’t know the facts."

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Critics have focused on Cuomo’s implementation of a March 25 order that called on nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients at their facilities. In response to the criticism, Cuomo has said the order was made in accordance with federal guidelines at the time and was not a significant factor in the spread of COVID-19 at nursing homes.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that New York significantly underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths that occurred at its nursing facilities. Cuomo acknowledged it was a "mistake" not to report the data sooner, but he maintained that all data were reported accurately.