Ahead Of Deadly Vets’ Home COVID Outbreak Hearings, GOP Lawmakers Ask AG To Open Criminal Probe
As a panel of state lawmakers prepares to grill members of Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration over how a COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run veterans’ home grew so massive it killed more than a quarter of the facility’s residents in the fall, Republicans in the Illinois House on Tuesday sent Attorney General Kwame Raoul a letter urging his office to open a criminal investigation into the matter.
The hearings and letter come on the heels of a damning report published by Pritzker’s office April 30, which places blame for the deadly viral outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home on a variety of factors, including lack of preparation, absentee leadership, lax COVID protocols and poor communication not just within the facility, but at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Among other findings, the investigation initiated by Pritzker a few weeks into the outbreak and carried out by the inspector general from the Illinois Department of Human Services found former IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia “abdicated” her responsibilities to her chief of staff. Hours after the report was published, Pritzker expressed remorse over hiring Chapa LaVia, saying “if I knew then what I know now, I would not have hired her.”
Republicans immediately called for the Attorney General’s office to open an investigation into possible criminal negligence of anyone involved in the LaSalle outbreak, but a Raoul spokeswoman told reporters the office hadn’t received any referral for criminal action, and the office was not planning any action.
But House GOP members are not letting up, and in his letter Tuesday, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) dared Raoul to investigate, citing state law laying out levels of felony charges for abuse or criminal neglect of long-term care facility residents.
Ahead of @RepKifowit's committee hearing this afternoon on the LaSalle Veterans' Home COVID outbreak that killed 36 residents in the fall, @ilhousegop members sent @ILAttyGeneral a letter again urging a criminal probe. More on both here: https://t.co/0DsmXwEKY0 pic.twitter.com/QtzMzybSzy— Hannah Meisel (@hannahmeisel) May 11, 2021
“This law was put into place to make sure there is accountability in our care facilities, and in this case, our veterans were under the direct care of the executive branch,” Durkin wrote in the letter, co-signed by 11 other GOP House members.
Raoul spokeswoman Annie Thompson told NPR Illinois Tuesday the letter was received and the Attorney General's office "will evaluate" it.
The deaths of the 36 residents at LaSalle “demand accountability and a thorough investigation,” the letter said, asking for prosecutions “if appropriate.”
But Raoul’s office just three months ago closed a years-long criminal probe into the handling of a Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy, which killed 13 in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first year in office in 2015. Raoul closed the investigation without filing any charges, explaining to WBEZthat not every investigation will lead to charges.
WBEZ spent years investigating the deadly outbreak at Quincy and found Rauner’s office ignored advice from experts’ and withheld information from the public as the outbreak unfolded. Raoul’s predecessor, then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan, opened a criminal investigation into the Quincy outbreak, which was revealed a month before the November 2018 election where Pritzker took out Rauner on a well-funded campaign that used the Quincy outbreak as a political bludgeon.
“Emotionally you know that there’s nothing that replaces a life,” Raoul told WBEZ this winter. “Nor would trying to make a criminal charge where it doesn’t exist. You can acknowledge that a wrong has taken place and still at the same time acknowledge that it’s not criminal.”
State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego), who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee set to interrogate Pritzker administration officials about the LaSalle outbreak Tuesday and Thursday told NPR Illinois she didn’t believe it was appropriate for lawmakers to pressure Raoul’s office to open a criminal investigation.
“I think the Attorney General has to decide for themselves,” Kifowit said. “That’s not the role of the legislature to tell a separate constitutional officer [to investigate]. “We’re going do all we can to investigate the situation and it’s up to the Attorney General to decide what path they’re going to take.”
Lawmakers often pen letters to constitutional officers, including the governor or secretary of state, asking those offices to take certain action.
Kifowit said the hearings would include the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ current Acting Director Terry Prince, who was appointed in early April. Others likely to attend include a representative from Pritzker’s office and likely officials from the state’s Department of Public Health and the DHS inspector general’s office, as that was the entity charged with investigating the outbreak, Kifowit said.
But Kifowit is not calling on Chapa LaVia to appear in front of the committee, nor the fired administrator of the LaSalle home. She also told NPR Illinois she saw no need to use subpoena power for her committee’s hearings into the outbreak.
“I think we’ve got to look at what happened and dissect…weaknesses in protocol and those kind of things with regard to making sure our veterans are taken care of, and we are not gonna repeat [them],” Kifowit said.
The report’s findings were broad and harsh, noting over and again that the outbreak began in early November — nearly eight months since COVID hit Illinois. The investigation found staff were often confused by the home’s ever-changing COVID protocols, and COVID-positive residents were repeatedly commingled with COVID-negative patients. Staff also failed to wear personal protective equipment in employee-only areas of the home, and were only tested for the virus once per week, while residents were only tested once every two weeks.
With the release of the report April 30, Pritzker’s office was quick to point out many changes suggested by the inspector general’s office had already been made — a sentiment echoed by Prince in interviews with reporters. He also said he would invite more oversight of Illinois’ veterans facilities, including seeking ratings by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, which monitors traditional nursing homes.
“I welcome anyone who wants to come in and walk through our homes and inspect us because I want them to see the incredible work that our staff does every day at these facilities to support Illinois’ heroes,” Prince told NPR Illinois.
This story has been updated with a response from Raoul's office and to reflect that the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's hearings on LaSalle will be split into two separate days.