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Cuomo said 'he can destroy me': NY assemblyman alleges governor threatened him over nursing homes scandal

(CNN) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pleading with lawmakers for support and even threatening political retribution against Democrats who have criticized him in an aggressive effort to contain political fallout from revelations that his administration had concealed the full extent of nursing home-related deaths during the Covid pandemic.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assemblyman Ron Kim

Describing an alleged exchange with the governor that has not been previously reported, Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim told CNN that he received a call on his cell phone from the governor last week as he was bathing his children at home.

"Gov. Cuomo called me directly on Thursday to threaten my career if I did not cover up for Melissa [DeRosa] and what she said. He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience," Kim said. Cuomo proceeded to tell the assemblyman that "we're in this business together and we don't cross certain lines and he said I hadn't seen his wrath and that he can destroy me," according to Kim.

Cuomo's adviser denied that the governor threatened to destroy Kim.

DeRosa is a top aide to the governor who came under fire last week after she told state lawmakers in a private virtual meeting that the state had delayed sharing with the legislature the full scope of the Covid-related death toll of New York's nursing home residents because of concerns about a potential federal investigation by the Department of Justice. (The governor's office has since released a partial transcript of the call.)

Kim, a progressive representing Queens who has been among the most vocal critics of Cuomo's handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and believes his own uncle died from a presumed case of Covid in a nursing home last year, participated in that virtual call. During the meeting, Kim said he called on the governor to apologize to family members of those who died in assisted living facilities. When the New York Post first reported on DeRosa's controversial comments, he was one of the participants quoted in the piece criticizing those remarks.

"No man has ever spoken to me like that in my entire life," Kim said of his phone call with Cuomo. "At some point he tried to humiliate me, asking: 'Are you a lawyer? I didn't think so. You're not a lawyer.' It almost felt like in retrospect he was trying to bait me and anger me and say something inappropriate. I'm glad I didn't."

Kim's wife told CNN that she had overheard parts of Kim's phone call with Cuomo last week, and described the governor as "loud" and "angry." She said she heard Cuomo say, "Who do you think you are?" as well as the words, "my wrath," and that immediately after the phone call, her husband told her: "The governor threatened to destroy my life."

Cuomo's efforts to reach Kim appeared to continue through the weekend. Kim said he received multiple calls from a "No Caller ID" number, followed by messages from Cuomo aides saying that the governor would like to speak with him again. Kim said he did not return the phone calls. He has since hired a lawyer, telling CNN that he believed this was necessary following Cuomo's first call which made him feel that the governor had asked him to lie about what had happened in last week's virtual call. He said he has informed the governor's office that any outreach should be made through his counsel.

When CNN first reached out to Cuomo's office for comment for this story on Tuesday, communications director Peter Ajemian did not directly respond to or deny Kim's allegation of threats from the governor in a written statement. Late Tuesday, Ajemian said the office would send a clarifying statement. Ultimately, the office sent a statement from senior adviser Rich Azzopardi late Wednesday morning that said: "Kim's assertion that the governor said he would 'destroy him' is false."

"The Governor has three witnesses to the conversation. The operable words were to the effect of, 'I am from Queens, too, and people still expect honor and integrity in politics,'" Azzopardi said.

Around the same time that Azzopardi's statement was sent to CNN, Cuomo began a previously scheduled press conference call on the coronavirus, and discussed his office's "long and hostile relationship" with Kim.

Cuomo said Kim's political animus dates back to a 2015 bill to reform nail salons that the governor proposed and that Kim initially backed, but later opposed. Cuomo cited a New York Times report from that year that examined financial contribution's that Kim received after he flipped his position. In that article, a top Cuomo aide was critical of Kim.

Kim said on Wednesday that he "100%" stood by his allegation that Cuomo had threatened to destroy him. He said he did not recall Cuomo making a specific reference to Queens, but that Cuomo had asked him last week on the phone, "Mr. Kim, are you an honorable man?" before proceeding to suggest that the honorable thing for Kim to do would be to put out a statement of support.

Kim also rejected Cuomo's suggestion that he had ulterior motives for criticizing Cuomo on nursing homes-related Covid deaths, saying he was deeply disappointed by the governor's handling of the matter during the pandemic.

"There's no undoing here. They have blood on their hands," Kim said. "We're talking about his record of performance in the last 10 months."

Azzopardi's statement also said that Cuomo had called Kim last week to take issue with Kim's comments in the initial New York Post story, suggested that Kim issue a new statement and that the assemblyman had agreed to do so. When no statement came, Azzopardi said, Cuomo's office followed up and did not get a response.

Kim told CNN that he did not agree to issue a new statement, and that the initial New York Post story did not misquote and misinterpret him.

In the days since the New York Post story, Kim has been outspoken in accusing the Cuomo administration of criminal wrongdoing and a cover-up. On Tuesday, he and other Democratic New York legislators wrote a letter to colleagues in the Assembly accusing Cuomo of obstruction of justice and seeking support in stripping the governor of some of the expanded executive powers he has had during the pandemic. (State Democrats had already been in active discussions to draft a bill to do this, with a vote likely to take place early next week, a source had previously told CNN.)

Kim is not the only lawmaker to have received fierce pushback and even threats from Cuomo and his top aides since last week, according to three additional Democratic New York lawmakers. All spoke to CNN under the condition of anonymity because they were afraid of retribution from the governor.

They said the administration had aggressively lobbied legislators to speak up in support of his handling of the nursing homes-related deaths, and that threats were made against those who are considering a vote to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers.

All three legislators said they were aware of outreach from the governor in which he clearly suggested or explicitly threatened political retaliation if they did not stand by him. One of them, a New York state senator who said they had not been contacted by Cuomo but heard directly from multiple colleagues whom Cuomo had reached out to, said the governor threatened those colleagues with retaliation -- including warning some that he could ruin their political careers if they supported weakening Cuomo's executive powers.

In other cases, the administration was persistent in asking lawmakers to come to Cuomo's defense, including by releasing supportive statements regarding last week's virtual meeting.

A member of the New York assembly said they had heard from multiple colleagues who received messages from the administration suggesting language that legislators could release after DeRosa's controversial comments were made public. Members were encouraged to say that the virtual call had been productive and that legislators were reassured that their requests for information would be prioritized going forward, according to this assembly member who described similar messages that multiple colleagues had received from members of the administration.

Cuomo has received widespread bipartisan criticism on his handling of nursing homes-related deaths during the pandemic. His office did not deny allegations that Cuomo threatened other New York legislators.

In a written statement to CNN, Ajemian, the Cuomo communications director, did not deny that Cuomo made threats to other legislators.

"The threats here came from some legislators who, according to a media report, threatened to use subpoenas and investigations as leverage in the budget process," he said.

Cuomo is up for reelection next year.

A Siena College poll released Tuesday showed that only 39% of New York's voters believe the governor has done an excellent or good job when it comes to making all data about Covid-19 nursing home deaths available, while 55% believe he's done a fair/poor job. The governor continues to receive high marks on his overall handling of the coronavirus pandemic, however: 61% of New York voters said in the survey that they approved of his response to the pandemic. The poll was conducted before DeRosa's comments came out last week, but after the New York attorney general's report came out last month that said the New York State Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents by approximately 50%.

Kim told CNN's Erin Burnett on "OutFront" Wednesday evening that his wife was in tears after the governor's call last week and that Cuomo's administration should apologize.

"That night was very, very troubling because we couldn't sleep, and she's telling me, 'What did you do to us? Stop what you're doing. Please,'" Kim said. "She feared for my future, for my life."

CNN's Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.