NY officials covered up more than just nursing-home deaths

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Gov. Cuomo’s coverup of nursing-home deaths revealed the stunning lengths to which he and his staff go to keep damning information from the public. But few New Yorkers may realize that such behavior is actually standard operating procedure throughout much of New York government.

For over a decade, for example, the Empire Center has submitted annual Freedom of Information Law requests to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the payrolls of its subsidiaries. And almost every year, one or more of those entities fails to comply on a timely basis.

In May 2015, our group had to sue the agency for FOIL noncompliance. We prevailed, and the judge awarded us our costs and fees, though the bill for the MTA’s mistake was ultimately paid by taxpayers and transit riders. Did the agency learn its lesson? Nope: This year we had to file an appeal when the New York City Transit Authority failed to even acknowledge our request for payroll data.

Meanwhile, the agency released its own report on overtime spending this month, seemingly based on data we requested in January but have yet to receive.

How quickly it moves when the information serves its interests: The report claims overtime fell last year compared with 2019. Undoubtedly, transit brass have something to prove after Empire Center staff showed extremely high 2019 overtime levels, particularly at the Long Island Rail Road.

Our findings, incidentally, led to a federal investigation, a handful of arrests and, ultimately, reforms at the MTA; its report appears to show the first fruits of those efforts. And this story shows why exposing info like this is so important: It protects taxpayers.

In presenting its data, as The Post noted, an MTA spokesman chose to be snarky: “While an outside group may have preferred to be the first to announce the MTA’s progress . . . we were pleased to share it with New Yorkers as data became available.”

Sorry, but we — the “outside group” — aren’t in a race “to be the first.” We simply aim to provide taxpayers and transit riders with access to complete information, in a timely manner, about how their taxes, fares and tolls are spent. That’s why we request and post complete state and local government salary datasets at SeeThroughNY.net.

And again, the delays we’ve encountered aren’t unusual: “The administration has a well-documented record to being pretty closed on FOIL,” says Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group in a New York Times report. He notes, in particular, its attempts to keep the press from finding out too much about a former top Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, who was convicted of corruption in 2018. “There’s considerable and consistent examples of them making it extremely difficult to get records.”

Then again, like the MTA, the Cuomo folks have no problem rushing out info when it suits them, such as when they provided unflattering details of ex-staffer Lindsey Boylan’s personnel records — personnel records! — after she accused the governor of sexual harassment.  

The state isn’t alone in its selective foot-dragging. In response to our annual request, for example, the New York City Employee Retirement System claimed it would need another four months to hand over the public data we requested.

But the worst, and now most famous, New York government data coverup came when Cuomo’s Department of Health asked New Yorkers to rely on its own “reporting” on COVID nursing-home deaths. We (and others) asked for the full data, including those who died after being sent to hospitals, but Team Cuomo stonewalled — never mind that the numbers were critical to learn how best to deal with the virus.

Not until Attorney General Letitia James revealed in January that DOH may have understated those deaths by nearly 50 percent did a court rule on the Empire Center’s lawsuit and order the full numbers released, forcing Cuomo & Co. finally to come clean. Yet even this week, as our Bill Hammond reports, the governor’s office is again delaying, for a third time, release of the records of its vaccine-review panel.

We’ll know soon if the administration’s nursing-home shenanigans warrant criminal charges, pending the outcome of various investigations. But it’s already clear Team Cuomo works hard to keep the public in the dark, despite the governor’s pledge to run the most transparent administration in history. It’s equally clear that the public suffers greatly as a result.

Tim Hoefer is the president and CEO of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

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