IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia resigns after contentious committee hearing over La Salle veterans home outbreak

Veterans Affairs officials leave many questions unanswered, citing ongoing investigations

Me leaving at this point would be quite cowardice of myself. I need to follow through with this independent report and see what happened so we can get down to the elements within that are factual – not speculative, not rumors.

—  IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia said during a committee hearing before her resignation

Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia resigned Monday after a hearing of the House Civil Judiciary Committee on the COVID-19 outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle that led to 36 deaths from complications related to the virus.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve our veterans,” LaVia said in a news release announcing her resignation. “I’m proud of our accomplishments, and I look forward to assisting the interim director in any way possible as the department continues its work to serve our heroes.”

Three members of the committee – Reps. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst; David Welter, R-Morris; and Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove – issued statements calling for Chapa LaVia’s resignation immediately after the committee hearing, according to Capitol News Illinois.

The lawmakers said Chapa LaVia’s performance during the hearing reflected poor leadership that caused them to lose confidence in her ability to lead the agency, according to Capitol News Illinois.

Maj. Gen. Peter Nezamis has been named the department’s interim director.

After Chapa LaVia’s resignation, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said in a statement that it was apparent that IDVA leadership had failed residents.

While I can respect the former director’s decision to resign, I question why the decision to leave the department was left in her hands.

—  State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris

“The removal of Director Linda Chapa LaVia was an inevitable and necessary step in bringing accountability to one of the deadliest outbreaks at a state-run facility in Illinois history,” Rezin said. “While I can respect the former director’s decision to resign, I question why the decision to leave the department was left in her hands. The governor should have removed the director from leadership long before [Monday].”

Rezin said several unanswered questions remain about procedures and decisions related to the handling of the outbreak.

“The governor, IDPH and IDVA have the responsibility to provide those answers to the people of Illinois and the families that have suffered from their inaction,” Rezin said.

During the 2 ½-hour committee meeting, IDVA officials took questions on topics that ranged from causes of the November outbreak to the talk of resignation.

Committee Chairman Andre Thapedi said the committee was aimed at a “fact-based investigation” into the outbreak.

“What happened at La Salle and what is being done to ensure that this never happens again is the purpose of this hearing,” Thapedi said.

Thapedi said he sent requests Dec. 2 to the IDVA for specific information on the outbreak due Dec. 9. On the date the information was due, no such documents had been submitted to the committee.

After resubmitting his request, information began to trickle in, and he was informed that his requests were too broad to be answered specifically.

Thapedi said a hearing is the last thing the committee wanted to have, but committee members believed it was necessary because of the circumstances of the outbreak.

“We all know that this is a common defense tactic in litigation that really has no place in legislature or government,” Thapedi said. “The amazing part is that some of the information requested by me was not produced but referred to in other hearings, discussed in media reports or produced to other third parties.”

Chapa LaVia reiterated, as in past hearings, the department’s commitment to complete transparency during the ongoing investigations.

The department asked the state Department of Human Services to conduct an independent investigation to determine the cause of the outbreak and any possible wrongdoing.

As questioning began, Chapa LaVia said she was unable to answer questions multiple times in the weeks leading up to the outbreak that began Nov. 1 because of the ongoing investigation.

In her first line of questioning, committee member Deanne Mazzochi said there were instances in the documents that were provided to the committee where it was reported that there were breaches in COVID-19 protocol.

Mazzochi referenced reports that the veterans home allowed soiled briefs to be combined with linens, the possibility of a Halloween party attended by staff members and the possibility of a wedding involving staff members.

Chapa LaVia said she was unaware of the specific document Mazzochi was referencing and said the IDVA has presented more than 1,600 documents to the committee. Chapa LaVia said all of the residents have the correct toiletries and are kept as clean and healthy as possible.

“I don’t know how you can say that you’re convinced that people were fully compliant with guidelines when there is a report that came out already suggesting that guidelines weren’t being adhered to,” Mazzochi said.

Thapedi interrupted that line of questioning, asking Chapa LaVia if there was an individual better equipped to answer the committee’s questions.

“When questions are posed, if you’re unable to answer them, Director, perhaps you should defer to your chief of staff to answer because we are not getting any answers and it’s getting a little frustrating,” Thapedi said.

Thapedi said the committee was being “stonewalled” after asking “direct and fair questions.” He noted his frustration with the IDVA declining to answer questions based on the ongoing investigation.

“This is the investigation,” Thapedi said. “I don’t care how many investigations are going on, this is an investigation. Please answer the questions so that we can conduct the investigation.”

IDVA chief of staff Tony Kolbeck began fielding questions from the committee alongside Chapa LaVia. Kolbeck was able to give information about the COVID-19 vaccine in the La Salle veterans home.

Kolbeck said that as of Friday, 75% of residents and 48.2% of staff have received the vaccine.

Committee member Terra Costa Howard said she is disappointed in the home’s staff for not taking full advantage of the opportunity to further protect the veterans within the home.

“We have school teachers who are waiting for these vaccines, and they are not getting themselves vaccinated and further making attempts to protect the veterans in those homes,” Costa Howard said. “It’s extremely disappointing to me, and I recognize that they have an individual right to not receive that vaccine, but this is just pathetic and sad.”

The questioning continued as committee Republican spokesman Randy Frese urged Chapa LaVia to continue to do whatever she can to protect the veterans. Frese said that if the pressure for her resignation made it impossible for her to perform her duties, then the role should be filled by an individual who can.

Mazzochi also touched on the subject of Chapa LaVia’s resignation, asking her if she has spoken with Gov. JB Pritzker about the possibility.

“Me leaving at this point would be quite cowardice of myself,” Chapa LaVia said. “I need to follow through with this independent report and see what happened so we can get down to the elements within that are factual – not speculative, not rumors. I am looking forward to the investigation being complete and we will go from that.”

The hearing recessed with Thapedi warning the committee’s future request for information is not requests pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, as there will be additional hearings after the requested documents are produced.

• Capitol News Illinois reporter Sarah Mansur contributed to this report.

Jayce Eustice

Covering local government, breaking news and whatever is thrown at me for the La Salle News Tribune