Churchill: Hochul claims change, but Malatras stays on

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul deserves credit for meeting this week with relatives of nursing home residents killed by COVID-19 and, most importantly, apologizing to them.

"I just approach this whole thing differently," Hochul said to reporters Wednesday. "People deserve to know that their government listens and actually cares and gives a damn about them."

Yes, yes and yes. But while the closed-door meeting was by all accounts tearful and emotional, the relatives were clear that the Tuesday apology isn't enough. They want more from the governor. 

"She was very empathetic," said Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean, who lost her in-laws to COVID-19 in New York nursing homes. "But actions speak louder than words."

Indeed, the relatives presented a list of requests to Hochul that included elder-care reforms, the creation of a nursing home victims compensation fund, the full release of all nursing home fatality data and an audit of facility deaths reported by the Health Department.

"We don't have a truly accurate count," Dean told me. "I believe it's even higher than 15,000."

You can understand why relatives continue to be suspicious. After so much dishonesty from the Cuomo administration, distrust is bound to linger. Plus, while Health Department Commissioner Howard Zucker is rightly departing, some of those involved in that dishonesty continue to have prominent roles in state government.

Hello Jim Malatras.

The State University of New York system chancellor is a longtime Cuomo insider closely linked to several of the former governor's scandals, including the cover-up of nursing home deaths. In fact, Malatras has acknowledged he helped edit a report that the Cuomo administration scrubbed of truthful nursing home fatality data. 

The report, which blamed nursing home deaths on employees, used numbers that didn't include residents who were transferred to hospitals before they died. Obviously, a Cuomo confidante had no business editing a Health Department report, but Malatras says his role didn't involve changing data.

Even if that's true, he had to have known the report was dishonest, more about polishing the former governor's image than providing a truthful account of the tragedy that hit New York nursing homes.

To the point:  Malatras claimed in a July 2020 interview with ProPublica that the report should silence the administration’s many critics on the nursing home issue, leading the news outlet to later conclude he "had not told the full story."

Malatras also spent dozens of hours working on Cuomo's book about the coronavirus pandemic, according to a government source with knowledge of the matter. That book, for which the governor was paid $5.1 million, also distorted data about nursing home deaths, again in an apparent attempt to burnish Cuomo's reputation.

(In a statement Wednesday, Malatras said he "volunteered over a couple of weekends in the summer of 2020, including taking documented time off on a couple of Fridays out of an abundance of caution, to review and edit portions of the Governor’s book.”)

So, in summary, we have a man who participated in a disinformation campaign now installed at the helm of a state university system that is supposed to be about truth, honesty and education.

Isn't that terrific?

Obviously, it isn't, which is why Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who attended the Tuesday meeting with Hochul, and New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy are among the bipartisan group who have demanded that Malatras leave state government.

"We're continuing to urge the governor to clean house," Kim told me Wednesday. 

Alas, there is a complication. As Times Union education reporter Rachel Silberstein reported, Hochul doesn't have the authority to fire Malatras, who was appointed by a SUNY Board of Trustees composed largely of people with strong ties to Cuomo. 

Heck, they're the sycophants who a year ago agreed to put Malatras, with limited experience in higher education, in the job without conducting a national search for a more suitable candidate. So far as anyone can tell, Malatras' biggest qualification to run the 64-campus education network was his membership in Cuomo's inner circle.

Hochul isn't entirely powerless, though, if she again wants to demonstrate a break from the prior administration — and intolerance of its deceptions about nursing homes. If Hochul demanded the chancellor's resignation, and explained why she wanted him to go, it would not be easy for Malatras to stay on.

But for now, at least, the governor is playing nice. When asked about Malatras, a Hochul spokeswoman said "a number of dedicated public servants who share a commitment to the governor’s agenda will continue to serve."

Well, it's true Malatras has been a dedicated servant — but to Andrew Cuomo, not the public.

[email protected] ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill