Cuomo comms director resigns as new scandal emerges

Shannon Stapleton/Pool via AP

Two things popped up this weekend in Cuomo-world, and while it’s unclear if they are related or not, it’s certainly a curious bit of timing. The first item was the rather sudden resignation of Peter Ajemian, Cuomo’s communications director. He’s been in that position for a couple of years and held other roles in Cuomo’s orbit prior to that. He’s being replaced by long-time senior advisor Rich Azzopardi. He has plenty of experience covering for the Governor, such as when he was recently sent out to explain how Cuomo didn’t prioritize his friends and family for early COVID testing because “we were testing all sorts of people” at the time.

Normally, seeing somebody leaving government work and heading to the private sector isn’t all that unusual, and that may be the case here. But it’s also taking place just as another story about Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the vaccination rollout is popping up in the news. The Wall Street Journal reports that Larry Schwartz, who Cuomo appointed as his “vaccine czar” until he was recently forced to resign, seemed to be doing some political wheeling and dealing in his important position. County executives from several parts of the state are saying that when they called Schwartz to ask for deliveries of COVID vaccine doses, he asked them if they planned to publicly call for the Governor’s resignation.

Investigators have interviewed at least three Democratic county executives who said they were surprised to receive calls from Larry Schwartz, a volunteer adviser who oversaw vaccine distribution for the state, asking whether they would be calling for Mr. Cuomo’s resignation, the people said.

Mr. Schwartz contacted more than a half-dozen executives in early March, executives said, as Mr. Cuomo faced mounting calls for his resignation from members of his own political party and was personally contacting state lawmakers to shore up support.

The executives said that at the time of Mr. Schwartz’s calls they were typically speaking with him about the allocation of vaccine supplies, not politics.

The State Attorney General’s office has now expanded their ongoing investigation into Cuomo’s various scandals to include this new area of alleged awfulness.

For his part, Schwarz is saying that he “didn’t link vaccine distribution to political considerations.” For any questions beyond that, he referred reporters to his attorney who declined to comment.

For the record, all of the county executives who were questioned are Democrats and have previously been Cuomo supporters, so this certainly doesn’t sound like some sort of GOP hit job intended to kick Andrew Cuomo when he’s down. Even taking Schwartz’s denials into account, assuming the county execs are providing solid information, what other context could exist to make this story smell any better? When all of this was allegedly going on, we were in the early days of the vaccine rollout. Everyone was racing to get their hands on a shipment of doses so they could put their vaccination pods into operation. If one of them picks up the phone to call the “vaccination czar” and find out how many vials they could request, how does the question of whether or not they planned to publicly call for the Governor to resign come into the conversation?

Oh, sure… we’ve got about 100 cases coming in. We might be able to send some to your county. Say, by the way… you aren’t planning on telling any reporters you think the boss should resign, are you?

That might not be an open-and-shut case of vaccine blackmail, but it certainly sounds bad. And yet, Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated that there’s basically no amount of scandalous stories that can come out that would prompt him to resign.

It sounds like the office of Letitia James has yet another set of interviews to conduct and she’ll be talking to the county executives in question if she hasn’t already. So that brings us back to the resignation of Peter Ajemian. At least for now, he’s still singing Cuomo’s praises and thanking him for “the honor of a lifetime.” His replacement was quick to chime in, saying that Ajemian “will always be part of Team Cuomo.” That’s the sort of thing you say when you don’t want to burn your bridges and avoid making a potentially powerful political enemy. And who knows? Maybe he simply received a juicy career opportunity in the private sector.

But at the same time, Ajemian clearly must have realized by now that even if Cuomo lasts until the election next year, his odds of getting another term are fading fast. And Cuomo has taken enough damage that any thoughts of either a cabinet position under Joe Biden or a presidential bid of his own have basically evaporated. Having a job as the communications director for an unemployed ex-politician can’t be the most enticing career option available. I wouldn’t be terribly shocked if Ajemian simply decided to get out of Dodge while the getting was still good and beat the rush out the door.