A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo attacked a former Cuomo aide and a government watchdog advocate on Tuesday, calling him “a mouthpiece for the trial lawyers” after he criticized a proposal backed by Mr. Cuomo to cap awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
The spokesman, Josh Vlasto, made his comment about the former aide, Blair Horner, in a Newsday article [paid subscription required] in which Mr. Horner accused the governor of cutting a “naked political deal” with hospital interests.
Mr. Horner, the legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, was criticizing a package of Medicaid cuts that hospitals and other health care interests agreed to last Thursday. As part of the deal, New York hospitals accepted significant cuts in Medicaid spending but in return won the new restrictions on medical lawsuits, which will save them hundreds of millions of dollars a year in premium payments. (All parts of the deal require approval by the Legislature.)
NYPIRG, which lobbies on patients’ and consumers’ rights issues, among others, opposes the restrictions, sharing a position held by the state bar association and groups representing trial lawyers.
The exchange was unusual in part because Mr. Horner, who is known in Albany for taking a hard and public line on ethics matters, worked briefly for the governor when Mr. Cuomo was attorney general, helping design an online database known as Project Sunlight that tracks campaign contributions, lobbyist activity and state contracting. In announcing Mr. Horner’s hiring at a news conference in 2007, Mr. Cuomo praised him as “the paragon of the principles of public integrity.”
But Mr. Horner, who returned to NYPIRG in 2008, has not shied away from criticizing his former boss. During the political campaign for governor last year, Mr. Horner questioned Mr. Cuomo’s ties to lobbyists. More recently, he suggested that lawmakers examine whether ethics disclosure requirements for state officials should include financial disclosure by co-habitating partners, like Mr. Cuomo’s companion, Sandra Lee, as the rules already do for spouses.
Last week, Mr. Horner and NYPIRG asked the state ethics commission to investigate whether a close Cuomo friend, Jeffrey A. Sachs, had broken state law by failing to register as a lobbyist after calling state officials on behalf of private clients.
NYPIRG has in years past found common cause with trial lawyer groups on liability issues and critics have suggested that the group takes money from trial lawyers. But when pressed Tuesday for the basis for his criticism, Mr. Vlasto declined to elaborate beyond a statement.
“Governor Cuomo respects NYPIRG and supports many of the government reforms the organization advocates for,” Mr. Vlasto said. “In this case, however, Mr. Horner was clearly espousing the well-known position of the trial lawyers.”
In an interview, Mr. Horner said NYPIRG was financed by a mix of large foundation grants and door-to-door canvassing that raises about half a million dollars a year, mostly in small donations. The group is not required by law to disclose its donors and Mr. Horner did not volunteer to do so.
“We have a canvass that goes door to door,” Mr. Horner said. “Forty-five thousand people donate an average of 100 bucks each. The big donations are all from foundations. The foundations publicly report the donations they give to NYPIRG, so those donations are public.”
He said NYPIRG generally opposed limiting the amount of money injured patients can receive in malpractice and other lawsuits.
“Our view is, you reduce the injuries, you reduce the lawsuits,” Mr. Horner said.