MORRIS COUNTY — Senator Steven Oroho and Senator Joe Pennacchio have filed requests for public records related to the Murphy administration’s $53 million settlement for veterans’ home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve filed a request for public records related to the $53 million that apparently will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers to settle claims of negligence and incompetence made against the Murphy administration for deaths in State-run veterans’ homes,” said Oroho (R-24), the incoming Republican leader. “The documents we are seeking will help us to understand what went wrong at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so we can develop effective policies that better protect our seniors and veterans. This isn’t about playing ‘gotcha’ with the administration, we’re trying to save lives.”
Days before Christmas, the Murphy administration confirmed it will pay $52.9 million to settle claims with 119 families of veterans home residents whose deaths were attributed to the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic.
Since May of 2020, Senate Republicans have sought to understand how the Murphy administration’s response to the pandemic contributed to unnecessary deaths in New Jersey’s nursing homes and State-run veteran’s homes.
In a continuing attempt to understand the underlying facts as well as the administration’s rationale for settling claims related to veterans home deaths, Oroho and Pennacchio have filed new requests for government records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) with the Governor’s Office, Department of Health, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and Department of Law & Public Safety as follows:
“Please provide a copy of any and all directives, policy statements, or other instructions or guidance, related to COVID-19, provided under the authority of the [named department], or any subdivision thereof, to any administrator, supervisor, or other staff or personnel, including volunteers, of a State-operated veterans nursing home in New Jersey between March 1, 2020, and the date on which this request is received.
“Additionally, please provide a copy of any settlement, mediation, arbitration or other agreement entered into by the State, or subdivision thereof, arising out of a lawsuit concerning the death, due to COVID-19, of a resident of any of the State-operated veterans nursing homes in New Jersey, as well as any government record relied upon to determine the terms of the settlement, mediation, arbitration, or other agreement.”
The Murphy administration denied a prior OPRA request from Senate Republicans seeking documents transmitted by the Department of Law & Public Safety to the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice pursuant to a federal investigation into pandemic-related nursing and veterans home deaths.
Pennacchio said he is hoping this new effort leads to a greater understanding of the impact of Murphy administration policies which forced the admission and prevented the testing of patients by nursing homes and State-run veterans home. Further, he hopes settlement-related documents can answer questions about the role of the New Jersey Department of Health and the State Epidemiologist in developing those policies and provide a clear timeline of discussions.
“At every turn, we’ve been stonewalled by the Murphy administration and denied access to public records that could provide critical insight to lawmakers,” said Pennacchio (R-26). “Their repeated denials will not deter us from continuing to seek important pandemic records that can inform our efforts to improve the health, safety, and economic well-being of New Jerseyans. Every OPRA request the Murphy administration denies only strengthens our case for convening a select committee with subpoena power to get the answers that lawmakers, victims, and families deserve.”
Senate Republicans have been calling for the formation of an investigative select committee since May of 2020 and have made multiple efforts to bring a resolution (SR-68) forming the committee up for a vote.
Following news of the $53 million settlement, the Senate Republican caucus sent a letter to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senate President-Designate Nicholas Scutari repeating calls for the formation of a Senate Select Committee on the Executive Branch’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.