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Apologies, accusations and heartache mark legislative hearings on COVID-19 deaths at state veterans’ home

Testifying before a House panel on Thursday, Deputy Gov. Sol Flores stuck to the administration’s contention that the state’s former veterans affairs chief was to blame, even as Flores apologized on behalf of the administration, saying “every single person involved could have done more to save your loved ones.” 

Deputy Gov. Sol Flores, left, and state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, right, during a state Senate Committee hearing on Friday.
Deputy Gov. Sol Flores, left, and state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, right, during a state Senate Committee hearing on Friday.
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SPRINGFIELD — Both parties agreed Friday that the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak that left 36 residents dead at the LaSalle Veterans Home was a mess — but they disagreed sharply on who was to blame.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration again pointed at former state Veterans Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia, contending she misled them into thinking she was adequately addressing the problems.

But Republicans lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Democratic governor, arguing the failure to take swift action as the crisis unfolded and the attempts to pass the buck indicated “a failure of leadership” at the top.

It was the second day of legislative hearings on last fall’s outbreak. Both days saw plenty of finger-pointing.

Testifying before a state Senate committee on Friday, Deputy Gov. Sol Flores said “there was never a time I thought [LaVia] was in absentia.”

“She was always there, she would always respond to my calls, my emails, and she showed up at all of our bi weekly meetings with an agenda with her chief of staff,” Flores told senators.

Linda Chapa LaVia, then director the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in November.
Linda Chapa LaVia, then director the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in November.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

But Flores said that what she was told by LaVia and others in her department “was a far cry” from the facts later laid out in the blistering report the governor requested from the inspector general in the state Human Services Department.

“Ultimately, this administration relied upon the people we had hired to get this right,” Flores said. “But when we learned that individuals had fallen short in performing their duties, in some cases severely, we suspended employees, terminated employees and informed others that they would not be continuing in their roles.”

LaVia resigned in January, with Pritzker at the time telling reporters “it was a mutual decision that she would step down.”

Deputy Gov. Sol Flores testifies during a state Senate Committee hearing on Friday.
Deputy Gov. Sol Flores testifies during a state Senate Committee hearing on Friday.
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The inspector general’s report released two weeks ago described a LaSalle Veterans Home with an “inefficient, reactive and chaotic” environment. An interim head of the home told the inspector general that LaVia “abdicated her authority” to her chief of staff. The report also concluded LaVia failed to provide the state-run veterans’ homes with “cohesive directives or guidelines related to COVID-19.”

Testifying before a House panel on Thursday, Flores stuck to the administration’s contention that LaVia was to blame, even as Flores apologized on behalf of the administration, saying “every single person involved could have done more to save your loved ones.”

Acting Inspector General Peter Nuemer testified Friday that his report was “tough but fair” and that there was “absolutely not” any interference from the governor’s office.

Acting Inspector General Peter Nuemer testifies during the state Senate committee hearing on Friday,
Acting Inspector General Peter Nuemer testifies during the state Senate committee hearing on Friday,
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Nuemer told lawmakers that LaVia refused to be interviewed for the investigation after requesting questions in advance.

Flores said she was not asked to be interviewed for the report. Nuemer said he didn’t interview any officials within the governor’s office so as to “focus on the key issues.”

State Sen. Sue Rezin said she was “shocked” that the watchdog did not interview those overseeing the veterans agency from within the governor’s office.

“The IG report found [LaVia] completely AWOL … but [Flores] was her direct supervisor and the person who’s coordinating out of the governor’s office,” the Morris Republican said.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, during Friday’s hearing.
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, during Friday’s hearing.
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At a House hearing Thursday, state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi said the Pritzker administration and LaVia were equally at fault for the mismanagement.

“To me a good leader doesn’t just assume that things are happening. A good leader actually checks to make sure that things are happening, and for you to sit there and say, ‘Oh well I just assumed that things were happening’. That is a failure of leadership,” the Elmhurst Republican said.

On Friday, state Sen Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, argued that LaVia had engaged in “a pretty good ruse” and that he was “sorry” the Pritzker administration fell for her deception.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike likewise blamed the Veterans Affairs Department’s leadership for the failures of the LaSalle home.

“Based on what we were hearing at the time we believed that the home was following all the recommended protocols, and that the appropriate steps were being taken to address the cases,” Ezike said.

llinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike testifies Friday.
llinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike testifies Friday.
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LaVia’s successor, Veterans Affairs director Terry Prince, told lawmakers that since taking over the agency he “instituted 13 new infection control policies that standardize … all four [veterans] homes.”

A 31-year U.S. Navy veteran with experience leading state veterans’ homes in Ohio, Prince vowed to “not present information to my supervisors or to you as legislators that I haven’t verified to be true myself.”

“As a veteran my heart absolutely aches for the 23 soldiers, seven sailors, five airmen and one United States Marine who lost their lives at our LaSalle Veterans Home,” Prince said. “Even with this grief in my heart, it is my job to not only move IDVA through this tragedy, but accelerate the process of improvement to serve my fellow veterans with the highest degree of care and professionalism and transparency.”