Facing Criticism Over Deadly COVID Outbreak At A Veterans’ Home, Pritzker Says He Regrets Hiring VA Leader

Veterans gravestone
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, place flags in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020, to honor the Nation's fallen military heroes. Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press
Veterans gravestone
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, place flags in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020, to honor the Nation's fallen military heroes. Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

Facing Criticism Over Deadly COVID Outbreak At A Veterans’ Home, Pritzker Says He Regrets Hiring VA Leader

In the wake of a damning report outlining several failures that contributed to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, Gov. JB Pritzker Friday expressed regret in who he chose to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

Linda Chapa LaVia represented the Aurora area in the Illinois House of Representatives for more than 15 years, ultimately co-chairing the legislature’s response to the deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy Veterans’ Home.

It was that experience that drew Pritzker to appoint her to lead IDVA when he became governor, he said.

However a new inspector general report sheds light on how a lack of preparation and leadership contributed to the deaths of 36 residents at the LaSalle Veterans Home during a COVID-19 outbreak in late 2020. One of Chapa LaVia’s top aides at the agency described her as having “abdicated” her authority to her chief of staff, according to the report..

“She seemed like an ideal person to be able to root out our problems in our veterans’ homes,” Pritzker told reporters Friday. “But I have to admit if I knew then what I know now, I would not have hired her.”

Chapa LaVia resigned in January after the worst of the outbreak had already occurred. She did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment. She also didn’t cooperate with the acting inspector general of the Department of Human Services for his report on the state’s handling of the outbreak. “Several witnesses noted that Ms. Chapa LaVia was not a hands-on or engaged day-to-day director and that [her chief of staff] managed the agency,” the report said. Pritzker ran for office in 2018, in part, on a platform of cleaning up the “fatal mismanagement” of multiple Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy Veterans’ Home by his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner.

The revelations in this response to a bigger and far more fatal public-health catastrophe at LaSalle threaten serious political blowback for Pritzker as he mulls a potential 2022 re-election bid.

House Republicans called on Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul to open a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of the LaSalle outbreak, questioning whether the details of the report amounted to criminal negligence of long term care residents.

“There has to be more accountability for the loss of 36 of our valued heroes who were entrusted in this home,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, who is also a former Cook County prosecutor. “ I won’t accept anything less than another set of eyes to look at the facts of this case to determine whether or not any section of the criminal code was violated.”

A Raoul spokeswoman said that the office had not received any referral for criminal action, which is the typical course of action when an inspector general finds potential criminal wrongdoing. She said the office is not planning further action at this time.

A criminal investigation into the Rauner administration’s mishandling of the Legionnaires’ outbreaks at Quincy was closed by Raoul without any charges.

Raoul also settled a dozen civil cases related to deaths at the Quincy home for a total of $6.4 million.

There already are potential civil ramifications in the LaSalle outbreak. One family has sued the state over the death of their loved one there.

“I can’t overstate just how tragic and how devastating and how sad and frustrating this is for a family,” said Michael Bonamarte, the attorney representing the family suing the state.

He told WBEZ that he represented several other families who will also likely be bringing negligence claims against the state for the loss of their loved ones at LaSalle.

In addition, there have been sharp legislative responses to the revelations in the inspector general report.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth said they will push the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs to assist the state in its COVID-19 response, while admonishing “the officials responsible for keeping our Veterans safe at LaSalle” as having “failed them.”

And legislative hearings are in the works in Springfield.

Among the issues that could be addressed, State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, said she wants to see future IDVA directors have to meet minimum qualifications in order to receive a governor’s appointment.

Neither Chapa LaVia nor her chief of staff had experience managing long term care facilities.

Kifowit, however, gave Pritzker credit for initiating the inspector general report as opposed to Rauner’s response to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in Quincy. An audit of the state’s handling of the outbreaks in Quincy was initiated by the legislature.

“I think it does say a lot that this inquiry was instigated by the governor’s office,” Kifowit said.

But State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Pekin, said Pritzker will be facing questions about how forthcoming his administration was with information related to the outbreak for months to come. She planned to introduce legislation that would compel current and former agency directors to participate with inspector general reports.

“They ran on this issue that they would make sure this would never happen again,” an outraged Rezin said. “If the governor handled it differently at the beginning, I think people would have been more sympathetic. But the fact that his administration, the people that report to him have chosen a different path to stonewall and bury a lot of the information up front, I think it’s going to be more difficult for the administration to answer the questions.”

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.