Robert Mujica, Former Budget Chief, Advises Hospital Lobby on Budget

The former budget director’s role may break a law meant to keep ex-state employees from monetizing insider knowledge.

Chris Bragg   ·   February 29, 2024
Former state budget director Robert Mujica sits at a table with a name card wearing a suit.
Robert Mujica at one of Andrew Cuomo's daily briefings in September 2020. | Lev Radin / Alamy

One of Albany’s most influential lobbying groups argues that New York can afford to ramp up health care spending — on the advice of an expert who would know.

Kenneth Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, said in a January interview that he was receiving counsel concerning the state budget from Robert Mujica, who served as New York’s top budget official under governors Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul.

“Look at the cash position of New York state,” Raske said, arguing that the state’s extensive cash reserves could fund billions in new Medicaid spending. “This is, like, astronomical. And we have as an adviser to us a former New York state budget director.”

Mujica is not offering his insight for free — and his arrangement with Greater New York may violate a law intended to prevent ex-state employees from monetizing insider knowledge gained in government, according to a government reform group.

During seven years as state budget director, Mujica became one of the most powerful unelected officials in New York: In a 2020 book, Cuomo wrote that Mujica managed “the state finances almost single-handedly.”

Since leaving the Hochul administration at the end of 2022, Mujica has held a day job as the $625,000-a-year executive director of a fiscal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s troubled finances. As long as he gets board approval, he can still take on outside clients. According to state ethics law, he’s not supposed to perform work that seeks to influence his former agency, the Division of the Budget, until 2025.

A cartoon drawing shows former Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, former state Budget Director Robert Mujica, former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and former Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa seated at a table labeled "New York State Leads Again." The four have nicknames, respectively: Dr. Knows Best, Smiling Rob, 56, and Magnificent Melissa.
A closeup of a poster former Governor Andrew Cuomo (56) released early in the coronavirus pandemic. "Dr. Knows Best" is former Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker; "Magnificent Melissa" is former Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa; "Smiling Rob" is Mujica. | Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

A subset of the state’s Public Officers Law called the “backroom services” clause prohibits former state employees from being paid to assist behind the scenes to influence “any case, proceeding, application or other matter” before their former agency, according to the website of the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government. The provision, designed to tighten the revolving door between government and the private sector, applies for two years after an employee leaves a state agency.

According to Raske, Mujica has been advising Greater New York on the state budget — a matter under the purview of the Division of the Budget, which is an agency Greater New York repeatedly lobbied concerning Medicaid in the final months of 2023. A Greater New York spokesperson confirmed that Mujica is being paid.

In a statement, Mujica said that in his outside work for clients, he does not make any “direct or indirect” “appearances” before the Division of the Budget.

“My engagement with GNYHA does not involve any lobbying activities,” Mujica said. “The contract specifically states: ‘Lobbying services will not be provided under this agreement.’”

A Mujica spokesperson later added that he “provided no backroom services or appearances before the Division of the Budget since leaving state service.”

“We have as an adviser to us a former New York state budget director.”

—Kenneth Raske, Greater New York Hospital Association

According to a 2018 state ethics advisory opinion, a violation may occur even when there is “no appearance” made by a former state employee, and even if an agency does not know of a former employee’s participation in a matter. The provisions are meant to guard against a former state employee using “inside information” to gain a favorable outcome.

Mujica would not comment on the budget-related insight that Raske said he has provided.

Mujica’s name does not appear on Greater New York’s lobbying expense reports running through December. He declined to say when he began working for the organization.

Greater New York represents 280 hospitals, health systems, and continuing care facilities in New York and three nearby states. Since last fall, Raske has been advocating to increase state Medicaid spending. While Hochul has proposed finding $1 billion in Medicaid savings, Raske has pushed a four-year funding plan to fully fund hospitals’ Medicaid costs, whose ambition he compares to a lunar mission.

“This is the equivalent of going to the moon in a spacecraft,” Raske told a legislative budget committee in January. “Except that this is accomplishable in our own backyard.”

When Raske formally presented the plan to the legislature in January, he emphasized that New York’s cash reserves contain $23 billion more than what’s necessary to protect essential services in the event of an economic downtown.

“My engagement with GNYHA does not involve any lobbying activities.”

—Robert Mujica, former New York state budget director

In the final months of 2023, Greater New York had directly discussed related matters with Mujica’s former agency, the Division of the Budget, according to state lobbying records.

At least one in-house lobbyist for Greater New York lobbied a Division of the Budget official, Jillian Kirby, concerning “Medicaid Budget Savings Ideas” and funding for “safety net” hospitals that treat many Medicaid patients. At least one official from Greater New York also lobbied Division of the Budget director Blake Washington concerning the “state budget,” according to lobbying records.

Before Hochul announced her budget proposal in January, Raske spent two months pleading for the administration to adopt his plan to hike Medicaid spending, he told New York Focus. He has framed the plan as being especially needed in communities that rely on struggling safety net hospitals.

“We tried to make the case for two months before this budget was released,” Raske told New York Focus. “We sat down with them. We made the plea.” With 1199, the health care workers’ chapter of the Service Employees International Union, his group has also been running a television advertising campaign since late last year pushing for Albany to fully fund hospitals’ Medicaid costs.

John Kaehny, executive director of the government reform group Reinvent Albany, said that Mujica is a seasoned Albany hand, who “knows it’s common for former state employees, especially top managers, to check with the ethics commission before taking a new job that might violate revolving door rules.”

“Maybe he did,” Kaehny said, “but from the outside, his work for GNYHA looks like a violation of the ‘backroom services’ rule ‘prohibiting a former state employee from rendering services in relation to an attempt to influence their former agency.’”

Mujica did not answer a question about whether he’d sought an opinion concerning his outside work from the state’s ethics oversight body.

A violation of the revolving door ban is subject to a civil penalty up to $40,000, plus the value of compensation received in connection to a violation.

Rossana Rosado, Kathy Hochul, Andrew Cuomo, Kenneth Raske, and Robert Mujica at an announcement for aid to Puerto Rico in February 2020.
From left: Rossana Rosado, Kathy Hochul, Andrew Cuomo, Kenneth Raske, and Robert Mujica at an announcement for aid to Puerto Rico in February 2020. | Lev Radin / Alamy

Mujica has come under public scrutiny regarding revolving door provisions in the Public Officers Law before. Six months ago, a report in the Albany Times Union questioned his paid work for another client with business before New York’s government.

In addition to Greater New York, Mujica works for a bidding group that is seeking one of three lucrative downstate casino licenses. The bidding group is led by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, who wants to build a casino next to Citi Field in Queens.

In that instance, according to lobbying expense reports, Mujica was paid by two related entities last year: $135,000 by New Green Willets LLC, and $180,000 by Queens Future LLC, for “civic engagement/community organizing.”

The winner of the downstate casino licenses will be decided by a casino siting board, which was appointed by the state Gaming Commission.

Unlike Mujica’s budget-related work for the hospital association, this government decision is not under the purview of Mujica’s former state agency.

But the revolving door provisions also include a “lifetime bar,” which prohibits a person from working on any specific matter in which they were “directly concerned” and “personally participated” while they were in state government, or that was under their “active consideration.”

As the state’s top budget official, Mujica oversaw the 2022 budget that created the bidding process and criteria for the downstate casino licenses. Lobbying records indicate he had at least some involvement with the issue.

In the final months of 2021, Mujica discussed “commercial casino” licenses with MGM Resorts International. In early 2022, New Green Willets reported lobbying Mujica on the specific budget bill that created that casino bidding process.

But the casino matter is now before a different agency — the Gaming Commission — and at a different stage — the selection of bid winners.

Whether a given project has multiple “phases” — and the degree to which a person’s work outside government is a continuation of their work inside — are criteria in judging potential “lifetime bar” violations, according to the 2018 ethics advisory opinion.

The 2018 opinion found the lifetime bar should be more narrowly construed than the broader, two-year ban on work to influence one’s former agency. For the lifetime bar, violations were to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

A spokesperson for the proposed Queens casino project told the Times Union that Mujica was offering “strategic advice” in line with state regulations.

“Steve Cohen is committed to being transparent which is why we disclosed Mr. Mujica’s consulting engagement,” the spokesperson, Karl Rickett, told the Times Union. “Mr. Mujica is providing services consistent with all government ethics obligations and he is not lobbying nor having conversations with any members of the [Hochul] administration on this project. We are lucky to be able to bring Robert’s decades of experience and varied talents to the team.”

In his statement to New York Focus, Mujica noted that the two-year ban would not prohibit him from making appearances before state agencies besides the Division of the Budget.

“I do not work on anything that would conflict with the lifetime ban,” Mujica said. “My engagements are reviewed by legal counsel.”

Mujica declined to say whether he was working for any other clients with business before the New York government.

Before he went to the private sector, Mujica was long an influential, savvy operator in the state Capitol.

Mujica served as chief of staff to two Republican Senate majority leaders, John Flanagan and Dean Skelos, and worked for the conference overall for nearly 20 years. In 2009, Mujica played a role in plotting the “coup” that briefly toppled the Democratic majority in the state Senate.

Mujica went on to serve a Democrat in 2015, when Cuomo hired him as state budget director, a job in which he gained Cuomo’s trust.

“He is a sphinx,” Cuomo wrote of Mujica in his 2020 book. “The man’s face never moves. He is inscrutable and unrelenting, and as tough a negotiator as I have ever encountered.”

In one instance during Cuomo’s tenure, a series of Mujica moves proved helpful to the Greater New York Hospital Association.

In the spring of 2018, at Cuomo’s strong urging, New York’s Catholic bishops agreed to provide the state with $1.5 billion from their sale of a church-affiliated health care plan. The buyer put in another $500 million.

Greater New York lobbied hard for that deal, Mujica later stated. That spring’s budget then gave Mujica control over the $2 billion, making it “available for transfer to any other fund of the state” as long as the money supported health care delivery.

In August 2018, Greater New York donated more than $1 million to a state Democratic Party’s campaign housekeeping account — at the urging of Cuomo’s reelection campaign, according to The New York Times.

Less than three months later, a chunk of the $2 billion was then used to fund a major Greater New York priority: the state’s first across-the-board increase in hospital and nursing home Medicaid reimbursement in eight years. The increase, which was expected to cost $140 million a year, was “quietly” published in the state register, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative Albany think tank that first reported the development.

The increase was also a longtime priority of Greater New York’s close ally, 1199SEIU, representing health care workers.

“I will continue to draw on Robert’s unique wisdom and expertise for years to come.”

—Governor Kathy Hochul

“They lobby for it every year,” Mujica told the Times in 2019. “I was very matter of fact: If I have the money, I’ll be able to do it; if I didn’t have the money, I won’t be able to do it.”

But the increase did not prove helpful as New York tried to pay a rising Medicaid bill. By March 2019, as the state budget deadline neared, New York had exceeded its budgeted Medicaid spending by $1.7 billion.

Rather than disclose the shortfall, Mujica pushed $1.7 billion in scheduled Medicaid payments by three days, effectively into the following year’s budget.

“Instead of doing anything to control costs, [the Cuomo administration] agreed to spend more money for a politically connected group,” recalled Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy. “Then, they hid that they were running over budget, and delayed a payment — which meant the newly enacted budget was immediately thrown out of balance.”

Mujca told the Times that he delayed the $1.7 billion without Cuomo’s knowledge.

When Hochul took over as governor in 2021, she purged most high-ranking Cuomo officials from her administration, but kept Mujica, keeping an experienced hand for her early time in office.

When Mujica left the administration at the end of 2022, Hochul praised his “incredibly valuable” 25 years of service to New York state.

“I am deeply grateful for his help in guiding my administration through our first budget process, in which we delivered historic wins for communities across New York state and also budgeted prudently, with a record amount in reserves,” Hochul said. “I will continue to draw on Robert’s unique wisdom and expertise for years to come.”

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
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