The office of state Attorney General Letitia James has quietly closed a probe into how a politically connected health network was able to distribute hundreds of hotly coveted COVID vaccine shots in December 2020, well before the doses were available to the general public.
At the time, New Yorkers who had spent months isolated at home were desperate to get vaccinated, but were initially forced to wait due to limited supply and a strict state-controlled rollout schedule.
ParCare Community Health Network was the only health care network in the state to advertise that it was giving the jabs “on a first-come, first serve” basis.
The Moderna shots available via ParCare Community Health Network violated the state’s stringent rules that prioritized frontline health care workers only, former state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker told reporters at the time.
“We take this very seriously,” Zucker added, noting the Health Department and State Police would launch a “criminal investigation into this matter.”
James also announced then she was opening an investigation — then recused herself from the probe after media reports about her ties to ParCare’s chief executive, Gary Schlesinger, whose clinics offered the vaccine at its locations in Brooklyn, Harlem, and upstate Kiryas Joel.
In January 2023 — two years later — ParCare’s lawyer received an email from Anna Brower, the AG’s acting chief of staff. “Our office has told state police and the Department of Health that we are not bringing a criminal prosecution against ParCare,” she wrote.
The state Department of Health had already informed ParCare, in May 2022, that it “is no longer seeking sanctions” against the health network over the premature vaccines.
“ParCare Community Health Network appreciates that after two years, the Attorney General has made public what we have known all along — that no wrongdoing has been found, by multiple authorities, in our efforts to provide New Yorkers with severely needed COVID vaccines,” a ParCare spokesperson said.
James’ office declined to comment, citing a separate, ongoing investigation into ParCare.
“The organization is unaware of any further investigation, but as always, we offer our full cooperation,” the ParCare spokesperson said.
Help Getting State Approval
Schlesinger’s ties to James go back years.
In 2011, a ParCare press release announcing the state’s approval of its Brooklyn clinic as a state-accredited health facility thanked James, then a local City Council member, who “rooted for the approval in Albany.”
In that same press release, James said it was “important for ParCare to participate in Medicare and Medicaid” and added that most of its patients are “in minority groups, and many are uninsured.”
Schlesinger also posted multiple photos with James on Facebook and touted her as the city’s next mayor.
Schlesinger has long argued that he legally obtained the 2,300 doses from the state Department of Health.
At the time, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Zucker accused ParCare of mislabeling itself as a Federally Qualified Health Center to obtain the vaccine from the state.
Staff at ParCare’s six urgent care facilities administered 869 of the doses, then gave the rest back to the state Department of Health after the early shots made headlines.
According to a ParCare ad at the time, the vaccines were only for “Elderly, high risk, underlying conditions.”
People who got the first shot at ParCare — including Schlesinger himself — were allowed to make special arrangements to receive their second jabs at hospitals.
A Freedom of Information Law request filed by THE CITY seeking a paper trail on the vaccine investigation turned up nothing.
James’ office last week responded that no documents related to the probe exist.
“Please be advised that the Office of the Attorney General has conducted a diligent search and has located no records that respond to your request,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Abisola Fatade.
But after THE CITY approached James’s office with questions about the investigation, the records department reconsidered.
On Wednesday, Fatade sent a second letter responding to the same freedom of information request, this one presenting a different reality.
“It has come to our attention that we inadvertently sent you the incorrect response on August 7, 2023,” Fatade wrote.
This time, James’ office said that it did possess documents relating to the ParCare investigation, but that it is withholding them under allowable exemptions.
Among them: “The records are subject to Grand Jury Secrecy” and because “the documents requested were compiled for law-enforcement purposes and would, if disclosed, interfere with law-enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”
A spokesperson for James told THE CITY the initial letter was “regrettably…sent with the incorrect reason for denying the FOIL request.”
The spokesperson added: “The correct reason — that documents are being withheld pursuant to Public Officers Law — has since been provided.”
Schlesinger’s Brooklyn-based health company was operating under millions of dollars of debt, according to an audit submitted to the attorney general’s charities bureau in 2019.
Schlesinger has long been politically active, and his Facebook page included multiple photos with him and James and other elected officials, including Donald Trump in April 2016.
“Catching up with the energetic NYC Public Advocate Letitia James to discuss healthcare needs of Brooklyn’s underserved communities,” he captioned a Facebook photo in January 2016.
In other Facebook photos, he called James “my friend” and the “future NYC mayor.”