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Reports: Cuomo vaccine czar's loyalty calls raise concerns

Mike Groll / AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (l) and Secretary to the Governor Larry Schwartz pictured in 2014.

A longtime adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo leading the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been calling county executives to gauge their loyalty to the Democratic governor amid a sexual harassment investigation, according to reports in The Washington Post  and The New York Times.

One Democratic county executive, who was not named by the newspapers, was so disturbed by the call from vaccine "czar" Larry Schwartz that the executive filed notice of an impending ethics complaint with the public integrity unit of the state attorney general's office on Friday, the newspapers reported.

The executive feared the county's vaccine supply could suffer if the executive did not indicate support for Cuomo, the Post reported.

Multiple county officials spoke to NPR on the condition of anonymity over fears of retaliation from the governor's office.

"I'm afraid of that man," one local official said. "Why in God's name would that man have called? People were terrified."

Schwartz served as secretary to the governor from 2011 until 2015 and has advised Cuomo off and on since then. He returned last spring to assist the administration with the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One county official said that during regular conference calls with more than 100 county officials and staff, Schwartz would routinely refer to the vaccine as his own: "If I have extra vaccine." If there were extra doses available and executives wanted access to them, this official told NPR that Schwartz would say: "Send me an email and I'll consider it."

The calls were first reported by The Washington Post. Schwartz told the paper the calls were made in a capacity unrelated to his role in vaccine distribution and that vaccine distribution was not influenced by politics. "Nobody indicated that they were uncomfortable or that they did not want to talk to me," he told the Post.

"Were any laws broken? No," one source told NPR. But when a county official tasked with public health during a pandemic receives a call like that from the individual who controls their access to the vaccine, "How are they supposed to feel? The inference is there. I control the destiny," he said, referring to Schwartz.

Marc Molinaro, president of the New York State County Executives Association, said after receiving the calls, three to four executives contacted him or his staff with a heightened sense of alarm and to express their concern and disgust.

"That these calls would be made at all was troubling — that they were made by the individual responsible for really, with a great deal of discretion [over] distribution of vaccines, was extremely disturbing to them," he said.

The phone calls, multiple sources close to the matter told NPR, crossed a line, and placed pressure on county executives tasked with public health who were eager to distribute vaccines quickly, all while avoiding politics.

This kind of rough and threatening pressure from Albany isn't new, said one of the officials. It's been happening throughout the pandemic, the source said.

Schwartz, who is working in a volunteer capacity to run New York's vaccine distribution, acknowledged making the calls to county executives, but told the Post he did not discuss vaccines in the conversations.

"I did nothing wrong," Schwartz told the newspaper. "I have always conducted myself in a manner commensurate to a high ethical standard."

But the phone calls could raise questions about an intermingling of politics with the state's coronavirus response.

"People do not see calls coming from the governor's mansion as somebody wearing one hat and then putting on another hat," Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told the Post. "If you are in control of a vital supply of a lifesaving resource like vaccines, you are carrying an enormous amount of implicit clout when you ask for political allegiance."

Cuomo is facing allegations that he sexually harassed or behaved inappropriately toward six women, including several former staffers. He has denied touching any women inappropriately.

The three-term governor has rejected calls for his resignation from fellow Democrats, including New York's two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and has asked New Yorkers to await the results of an investigation headed by state Attorney General Letitia James.

Schwartz told the Post that the calls he made to assess political support for Cuomo were distinct from the role he plays in the vaccination effort.

"I did have conversations with a number of County Executives from across the State to ascertain if they were maintaining their public position that there is an ongoing investigation by the State Attorney General and that we should wait for the findings of that investigation before drawing any conclusions," he wrote in an email.

Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press through a Cuomo spokesperson on Sunday that any assertion Schwartz "acted in any way unethically or in any way other than in the best interest of the New Yorkers that he selflessly served is patently false."

"Larry answered our call to volunteer in March and has since then worked night and day to ?help New York through this pandemic, first managing surge capacity, and procuring necessary supplies for the state, setting up the contact tracing efforts, and now assisting with vaccine distribution," the statement said.

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