For months, Assemblyman Ron Kim has been one of the few Democratic lawmakers willing to criticize Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his handling of the state’s nursing homes during the pandemic, pressing for investigations into the matter.
So when a top aide to Mr. Cuomo recently admitted that his administration had withheld nursing home data from state lawmakers, Mr. Kim, whose Queens district was hit hard by the coronavirus, said it appeared the governor was “trying to dodge having any incriminating evidence.”
Hours after Mr. Kim made that comment to The New York Post last Thursday, he said he got an irate late-night call from the governor. Mr. Cuomo began with a question — “Are you an honorable man?” — and then proceeded to yell for 10 minutes, Mr. Kim recalled, threatening to publicly tarnish the assemblyman and urging him to issue a new statement clarifying his remarks.
Mr. Cuomo made good on his threat on Wednesday afternoon.
In a remarkable retort, the governor used his press briefing to lob allegations of impropriety at the assemblyman, saying that he and his administration have had a “long and hostile relationship” with Mr. Kim, now in his fifth term.
In particular, Mr. Cuomo was angered and combative about a letter published by The New York Post that was signed by several Assembly members, including Mr. Kim. The letter, citing the governor’s delays in releasing a complete tally of deaths of nursing home residents, including those that happened after a resident was transferred to a hospital, accused Mr. Cuomo of attempting to circumvent a federal probe and “intentional obstruction of justice.”
In lengthy remarks, Mr. Cuomo also accused the assemblyman of a “continuing racket” soliciting donations from nail salon owners, who were upset about a 2015 nail-salon reform law that he helped craft.
“I believe it was unethical if not illegal,” Mr. Cuomo said, suggesting that Mr. Kim was engaging in “pay to play.”
The scathing back-and-forth comes as the Cuomo administration continues to deal with the fallout from a series of revelations about its withholding the data, effectively covering up the full extent of how many nursing home residents died from the virus.
In the last month, the Cuomo administration has nearly doubled the official count of deaths of nursing home residents, from about 8,500 to more than 15,000 — in the face of a blistering report from the state attorney general, Letitia James, and a court order.
Mr. Cuomo has strongly denied any wrongdoing, despite a nearly six-month delay between the formal request from lawmakers in August and the release of the data in the wake of Ms. James’s report.
Many lawmakers have been angered by the governor’s lack of candor when it comes to nursing homes and other issues. The delay in reporting data to lawmakers in particular has strained his relationship with fellow Democrats, who rule both houses of the Legislature, and emboldened attacks from Republicans.
The latest catalyst involves a private meeting between Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, and Democratic lawmakers, including Mr. Kim.
Ms. DeRosa told the lawmakers last Wednesday that the Cuomo administration had not complied with lawmakers’ monthslong request for data on nursing home deaths because the Justice Department had made a similar request. She said that the administration was concerned that former President Donald J. Trump would politicize the matter and open a formal investigation into Mr. Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes.
Ms. DeRosa said the Trump administration had turned nursing homes “into a giant political football” and, upon receiving the Justice Department request, “basically, we froze.”
The following day, after the Post story had published, Mr. Kim was home with his wife and about to bathe his children when he received the call from the governor.
Mr. Cuomo, he said, was furious with him about Mr. Kim’s comments to The Post, which quoted him as saying, among other things, that his takeaway from the call was that the Cuomo administration “had to first make sure that the state was protected against federal investigation.”
“He goes off about how I hadn’t seen his wrath and anger, that he would destroy me and he would go out tomorrow and start telling how bad of a person I am and I would be finished and how he had bit his tongue about me for months,” Mr. Kim said. “This was all yelling. It wasn’t a pleasant tone.”
Mr. Kim said he felt bad for the position Ms. DeRosa was in and even tried to get The Post to remove his quotes before he received the governor’s call. Mr. Kim said Mr. Cuomo asked him to issue a new statement saying he had effectively misheard Ms. DeRosa. He said the governor wanted Mr. Kim to say that Ms. DeRosa told lawmakers that the reason they withheld nursing home data from them was because the administration was busy answering the Justice Department’s request.
But Mr. Kim told The Times he was not willing to issue a new statement that contradicted what he had heard in the call with Ms. DeRosa.
“Basically, I saw a crime and he’s asking me to say that I did not see that crime,” Mr. Kim said. “I heard what I heard and I can’t lie.”
A spokesman for the governor, when asked about Mr. Cuomo’s call with Mr. Kim, initially suggested that the governor’s remarks on Wednesday had sufficiently addressed the issue.
But after this article was published, the spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, said that Mr. Cuomo had only asked Mr. Kim to clarify his remarks because the assemblyman had told him that they were taken out of context in the Post article.
Cuomo officials maintained that the governor never said that he would “destroy” Mr. Kim, and characterized the conversation between the two men as “calm,” denying the governor yelled.
“Mr. Kim is lying about his conversation with Governor Cuomo Thursday night,” Mr. Azzopardi said. “I know because I was one of three other people in the room when the phone call occurred. At no time did anyone threaten to ‘destroy’ anyone with their ‘wrath’ nor engage in a ‘cover-up.’”
Peter Ajemian, the governor’s director of communications, added that “Melissa was clear we needed to prioritize the federal request before responding to the State Legislature. We have been responsive to both requests and there is no crime here, period.”
Mr. Kim said the governor called him four more times on Saturday, but he did not pick up because he was stressed by the situation and felt uncomfortable. He has since retained legal counsel and told the governor’s office that any future communications should involve his lawyer.
“The governor can personally attack me all he wants in an effort to distract us from his incompetent management,” Mr. Kim said in a statement. “But these facts are not going away because they are the facts and are unacceptable.”