In October, Gov. Mike Parson called on the Missouri Veterans Commission to launch an independent, external investigation about a deadly COVID-19 outbreak within Missouri’s veterans homes. The virus has so far claimed the lives of at least 158 residents in the seven state-operated nursing homes for veterans.
Armstrong Teasdale law firm won the bid to review the COVID-19 safety measures and make recommendations. The firm released a blistering report saying a “failure of leadership”, “failure to recognize the outbreak”, and the “lack of a comprehensive outbreak plan” were major reasons the outbreak happened.
The contract with the firm included a 415-page full report and a 53-page summary. The price tag of the investigation was $350,000 of taxpayer money.
State Senator Jill Schupp, who is a member of the commission, tells Missourinet Chairman Tim Noonan received the report on November 17. The commissioners were given it on November 30. She says Noonan let the commissioners view the full report for about three days before she says she was stripped of access. Chairman Noonan says she was able to review but not share the entire 415-page report because of security and privacy protections. Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, is calling on Noonan to release the full report.
“The report will have information in it that may be very important to understanding how we move forward and protect the health and well-being of our veterans and of our staff, how we make sure that we lessen the exposure, and make sure everybody comes out safely on the other side of this. That’s what this report was supposed to help us understand. Not having access to it, not being able to see it and utilize the information in it handicaps us,” says Schupp. “We have an obligation to take care of our veterans and to make sure they are healthy and to do everything we can to make sure that our staff who is taking care of them directly is healthy. That’s what these reports were supposed to be about. If no one can see them, we can’t act upon them.”
She says any personal information could be removed.
“This is an unprecedented situation was for us. We want to make sure we are doing everything as well as possible to care for our veterans. Armstrong Teasdale was hired as investigators to help us figure that out. The chairman is saying it is not necessary that the report be put forward. I can’t rationalize it,” says Schupp. “It is the law. It is about transparency. It is about putting the veterans first. That’s what we need to be doing. Whatever information we need to gather, discern, and learn from, that is what we need to be working on.”
During a virtual presentation this month about the investigation’s findings, Schupp says all the commissioners had their computer microphones muted, except for Noonan.
“We didn’t know until we got there. We were not allowed to appear on the screens,” says Schupp. “He took roll, but he didn’t allow us to answer the rolls. He just said, ‘Okay, this commissioner is here, this commissioner is here.’ We were not allowed to make a comment at any point in time. We were not allowed to use the chat to put forward questions.”
Schupp says she asked the firm for additional information.
“I tried reaching out to them via phone and email. I was not responded to but then there was a letter sent saying that Armstrong Teasdale had fulfilled their contractual obligation and they would not be communicating with any of us – that their relationship with us was over as per the contract,” she says.
Schupp says the governor’s general counsel, his chief of staff, and Missouri Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman all agree the summary and full report are subject to the state’s open records law.
“I don’t think the chairman is trying to undermine the care for our veterans,” says Schupp. “I just think he’s gone about this in a way that is not constructive. But, I do believe he is hampering our ability to take care of our veterans by his actions and refusal to release this public report. And he is sidestepping Missouri law. Even though we don’t necessarily agree as commissioners on what information needs to be put out there to move us in this direction, I think every one of us wants to make sure that our veterans health, safety, and well-being are the absolute top priority. At the same time, we care deeply about our staff who does the very hard work of taking care of our veterans, which is hard anyway. But during a pandemic, just so difficult. We are grateful and want to keep all of them healthy and safe.”
Has Schupp gotten any pushback since putting out the call? She says Noonan sent the rest of the commission a copy of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about her efforts to get the full report released. She says Noonan included a note suggesting that Schupp has put the commission at risk and he plans to call a meeting within the next week.
“I have been asking him to call a meeting,” she says. “Now maybe he will move forward and call a meeting so that I can talk to the commissioners, along with the Missouri Veterans Commission attorney, about why it is critical that we release this document.”
Schupp says the commission has been holding meetings quarterly, but the chairman has the ability to call additional meetings if he wants.
Gov. Parson’s office issued this statement to Missourinet:
“As a veteran myself, the Missouri Veterans Commission is very important to me. It’s not about the Commission or the Chair; it’s about the veterans. This is why I took action and called for an investigation. It’s evident that change is needed,” said Parson.
During a Capitol press conference Wednesday in Jefferson City, Missourinet asked Parson to elaborate on what changes he wants.
“I’ve got to be careful with that,” he said. “I’m going to do everything within my power to make sure they (veterans) are taken care of. If people didn’t do their job is why I called for the investigation to expose that, if that is the case. The veterans will be a priority. I’m not going to worry about everybody’s personal lives that sit on a commission or a chairman. I’m just going to absolutely worry about the veterans and that is my whole focus.”
Noonan was appointed in 2017 by former Gov. Eric Greitens.
In an email from Noonan to Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman, Noonan says he is “keen” to release the report but wants assurances first.
“At this point, I believe it is prudent to have an opinion letter from the state. This should clearly articulate that I am held harmless and incidentally I don’t have attorney-client privilege with Armstrong Teasdale,” says Noonan.
Missourinet has contacted the Veterans Commission seeking a comment from Noonan.
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