Illinois GOP members call for criminal investigation of La Salle veterans home outbreak

House Republicans say outbreak should get same look as Quincy

Republican members of the Illinois House of Representatives are calling for a criminal investigation of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle that led to the deaths of 36 residents.

GOP House members also called for Gov. JB Pritzker to take political accountability, after findings of a report Friday ordered by Pritzker said a lack of planning and communication by state and local administrators under the governor’s administration led to confusion among staff, and resulted in residents who tested positive for COVID-19 exposing residents who tested negative, among other missteps.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said Friday afternoon there needs to be further investigation into whether criminal negligence took place, citing a precedent set by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office when it investigated the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the Quincy veterans home. The state’s mishandling of the outbreak that led to 14 resident deaths was investigated for more than two years and recently closed without the office filing charges.

Durkin was joined by state reps. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon), Dan Swanson (R-Alpha) and Deanne Mazzochi (R-Elmhurst) in a video press conference Friday.

When asked by media, Durkin stopped short of calling for the governor’s resignation, answering he wants Pritzker to accept responsibility for his role in the outbreak and not pass it on to others.

“The buck stops here,” Durkin said.

“I will not 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,” he added.

Pritzker’s office did not respond to questions emailed Friday from Shaw Media.

“I’m not aware that a criminal investigation has been conducted,” La Salle County State’s Attorney Todd Martin said, “and my office has not been contacted to review any such investigation.”

Swanson said Pritzker made the Legionnaire’s outbreak in Quincy a focal point of his campaign against former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was governor at the time of that outbreak.

Friday’s report from Illinois Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the law firm Armstrong Teasdale said former IDVA Director Linda Chapa La Via was not a hands-on or engaged day-to-day director. IDVA Chief of Staff Tony Kolbeck said in the report he “was generally making decisions for the IDVA” and handled its day-to-day operations.

Chapa La Via resigned in January after she was criticized during a legislative committee meeting for her response to the outbreak. La Salle veterans home administrator Angela Mehlbrech also was fired in December.

Chicago Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson tweeted Pritzker said of former Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs director Linda Chapa La Via: “If I knew then what I knew now, I would not have hired her.”

Mazzochi said Pritzker didn’t appoint competent administrators. Pritzker’s appointment of former state rep. Chapa La Via was an example of “appointing a political person with no experience in charge of a critical agency,” she said.

Swanson said Pritzker’s lack of action in regard to the La Salle veterans home outbreak underscores the governor was taking advantage of the issue in Quincy to win political points at that time.

“When there are failures, you need to own them,” Swanson said.

Demmer said he was concerned that even after positive cases were confirmed, it took the governor’s administration 10 days to respond. Afterward, Demmer said 10 residents had died from complications related to COVID-19.

“We needed better leadership,” Demmer said. “And even that couldn’t wake up the leadership.”

Demmer said he is calling for Pritzker to come forward immediately to bear responsibility, present systematic changes and ensure with those changes “this never happens again.”

Demmer added he was concerned about the report identifying a culture of “non-compliance” at the veterans home in La Salle. Demmer said it is unacceptable to allow a culture to breed that isn’t taking health and safety protocols during the pandemic seriously.

The House Republicans also criticized Pritzker for filling a vacancy in the senior homes administrator job, after having a candidate in 2019 that was not hired.

“The governor needs to explain that decision,” Mazzochi said.

Derek Barichello

Derek is a Streator High and University of Illinois graduate. He worked at the Albany-Herald in Albany, Ga., and for Sauk Valley Media in Sterling, before returning to his hometown paper. He's now news editor for both the NewsTribune and The Times.