- Andrew Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, and his brother Chris Cuomo were among the former governor's allies plotting to discredit Janice Dean, sources said.
- Dean, a Fox News host and meteorologist, became one of the most prominent critics of Andrew Cuomo's Covid response last year.
- The revelation comes days after CNN fired Chris Cuomo after its investigation into how he assisted his brother's response to sexual harassment scandals.
Close allies of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including his top aide and his former CNN anchor brother, plotted to find ways to discredit Fox News meteorologist and host Janice Dean after she became one of the most vocal critics of the governor's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.
Melissa DeRosa, who had served as secretary to the governor, was among the Cuomo aides who ripped Dean behind the scenes and sought to craft a public messaging strategy that would paint the Fox News personality as merely a right-wing commentator, people familiar with the effort told CNBC. Dean's criticism of Cuomo stemmed mainly from the 2020 deaths of her husband's parents, whom she said died of Covid in their elder-care facilities.
It remains unclear if DeRosa or Cuomo's team ever went ahead with initiating such a plan.
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Andrew Cuomo himself was present during some of the strategy sessions during which Dean was mentioned, one of the people said. These sessions mainly focused on the governor's response to Covid.
Chris Cuomo, who was a CNN anchor until he was fired last week, was encouraged to find information that would focus on Dean's political leanings, according to a person familiar with the matter. It's unclear whether Chris Cuomo ever went ahead with digging up information on Dean, or who encouraged him to seek the information. Dean started criticizing Andrew Cuomo on air and in columns during 2020, before the sexual harassment scandal exploded.
The people cited in this article declined to be named in order to speak freely about private conversations.
CNN fired Chris Cuomo after documents released by New York Attorney General Letitia James showed that he had a much deeper role advising the former governor's team than previously known while his brother was being accused of sexual harassment.
The former governor has denied wrongdoing. He resigned in August after the attorney general released a report detailing more than 10 instances of alleged misconduct by Cuomo. Chris Cuomo has also been accused of sexual harassment by former colleagues, and he has also denied it ever happened.
Andrew Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told CNBC that he didn't know whether Chris Cuomo was being asked to look into Dean. He denied that the strategy sessions were focused on her. He also said the governor's office's response to Dean's criticisms was handled by the press office.
"We had no 'strategy sessions' about Janice Dean and to the extent that the press office had to respond to something she said, it was handled by the press office and did not rise to the level of something the governor would be engaged with," Azzopardi initially told CNBC on Friday in an email.
Later Azzopardi clarified to CNBC in a follow up text message after publication of this story about Chris Cuomo.
"I have no knowledge of this ever happening and you must ask, why then did the Attorney General not put anything about it in her report or ask any of the relevant people about it?" he said late Friday.
Representatives for Chris Cuomo and DeRosa did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement to CNBC, Dean took aim again at Cuomo's handling of nursing home patients and ripped the former governor's allies.
"As I have said from day one, this was never about politics. I watched first-hand how the governor's office treated grieving families trying to get answers about the March 25th 2020 executive order to admit over 9,000 Covid positive patients into nursing homes. Instead of addressing our concerns or expressing their condolences, Cuomo's spokesperson Rich Azzopardi called us a 'death cult' and told my sister in law to 'get a life' not long after both her parents died," Dean told CNBC on Friday.
Dean emerged as one of the most prominent critics of Andrew Cuomo's response to Covid, particularly how he handled nursing homes, when the much of the media and the nation looked on him favorably. Her father- and mother-in-law both died of Covid in their elder-care facilities, Dean wrote in a USA Today op-ed published in July 2020.
"The fact that this governor refuses to accept responsibility for his actions makes our grief and anger far worse," she wrote. "I know I speak for many when I say we need a nonpartisan investigation on both the state and federal level so that this never happens again."
A Cuomo administration directive said nursing homes could not turn away patients who were infected with Covid. Dean has blamed that directive and the former governor's overall handling of the pandemic for the death of her in-laws.
Dean continued her criticism of Cuomo into 2021 and through his resignation.
Early this year, Azzopardi, the Andrew Cuomo spokesman, dismissed Dean's attacks on the then-governor in a statement to the UK newspaper the Daily Mail: "Last I checked she's not a credible source on anything except maybe the weather."
The then-governor in 2020 had become a sensation for his regular Covid crisis press conferences and his regular media appearances during which he touted his response to the pandemic and criticized former President Donald Trump's own handling of the virus. He appeared with his brother Chris Cuomo multiple times at public Covid events and on the air.
"It was bad enough seeing him on all the national news channels being asked about his love life instead of his lethal policy. But the day my anger and grief turned to rage was when I saw the governor and his anchorman brother Chris Cuomo laughing and joking around on CNN primetime about giant cotton swabs and arguing about who their mother's favorite son was," Dean said at the time.
The controversy surrounding nursing homes went beyond the outcry by Dean and others. The state Attorney General released a report earlier this year that said Cuomo's administration had undercounted by thousands coronavirus-related deaths of state nursing home residents.
Cuomo admitted that their lack of public transparency on nursing home deaths was a mistake. He also said his office was concerned about Trump's Department of Justice possibly initiating a politically biased investigation.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into whether Cuomo's aides gave false information on nursing home deaths to the Department of Justice, according to a March report by The New York Times. The Justice Department in July decided not to pursue the case.
Full Dean statement:
"As I have said from day one, this was never about politics. I watched first-hand how the governor's office treated grieving families trying to get answers about the March 25th 2020 executive order to admit over 9,000 Covid positive patients into nursing homes. Instead of addressing our concerns or expressing their condolences, Cuomo's spokesperson Rich Azzopardi called us a 'death cult' and told my sister in law to 'get a life' not long after both her parents died. Over the last year and a half I have seen victims of Andrew Cuomo and those demanding accountability demeaned and smeared in the press and on social media. In January of this year, Azzopardi was particularly misogynistic by responding to my inquiries and reporting as 'not a credible source on anything except maybe the weather.' So while I am not surprised to hear that the Cuomo's administration alongside his brother Chris Cuomo were doing the same with me, I am glad these details are coming to light."