Psaki calls Cuomo vaccine chief's political outreach 'inappropriate'

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday called reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s vaccine czar blurred lines by querying county officials about their loyalty to New York’s embattled governor “concerning” and “inappropriate.”

“We work to ensure that [the Covid vaccine] is equitably distributed and that there are not steps that are taken that are concerning,” Psaki told reporters Monday. “So we were concerned, of course, about the reports of this inappropriate behavior, but we also have a number of steps in the system to ensure that the people of New York, the people of any state [that] the vaccines are being distributed fairly and equitably.”

Psaki’s remark at Monday’s press briefing marks one of the Biden administration’s strongest rebukes of Cuomo’s management to date amid a White House effort to keep its distance from a once-prominent ally who now faces allegations of mismanagement and sexual misconduct. On Friday nearly all of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation backed calls for Cuomo to step aside.

“New developments seem to happen every day,” Psaki said of recent allegations. “We find them troubling. The president finds them troubling.”

She added that there are safeguards to prevent states from improperly steering vaccines and ensure they are being "distributed fairly and equitably."

Outreach to local officials by Cuomo’s vaccine czar Larry Schwartz — as reported over the weekend by The Washington Post and New York Times — raised alarms because of the perception that a county’s vaccine supply could be affected if they did not express sufficient support for the governor, though no official said Schwartz made any direct linkage between the two. Schwartz has said that vaccination site determinations are kept independent of his other entreaties.

“Nobody indicated that they were uncomfortable or that they did not want to talk to me,” he told The Washington Post.

At least one local official was so unnerved as to lodge notice of an impending ethics complaint with the state attorney general’s public integrity unit on Friday. The attorney general’s office is separately investigating recent allegations of sexual misconduct against the governor, a probe that’s being led by two outside attorneys.

Schwartz, who previously served as Cuomo’s top aide, has held numerous positions in and around state government in the years since leaving the governor’s office and is widely seen as a stand-in for the governor. He was brought in a year ago to assist with the state’s response to Covid-19 and his portfolio included overseeing the state’s efforts to procure ventilators and personal protective equipment, as well as the point man on vaccine allocations.

Schwartz has often played the role of bad cop for Cuomo, and has periodically caught flack for his unsparing tactics.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has leapt at opportunities to twist the knife on Cuomo after spending years as his punching bag, said Monday that Schwartz’s meddling needs to be investigated by either state or federal authorities.

“If vaccine supply is being given out for political reasons, that in many ways is the single worst thing we’ve heard on all of these scandals, and they’re all horrible, because it literally means some people may not get the help they need and may not live as a result,” he told reporters.

The governor’s office did not immediately return a request to respond to Psaki’s comments.

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