A barrage of questions fills Regina Discenza’s head every time she thinks about what her parents, Charles and Madeline Costantino, suffered through two years ago as COVID-19 swept through the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, where the couple lived.
Why was her father moved from room to room at the height of the outbreak shortly before he died? Did a breakdown in care allow her mom to become infected and succumb to the virus months later? Why wasn’t the facility better prepared when other nursing homes had already been hit hard a month before?
Monday marks the second anniversary of the first confirmed COVID case among the three state-run veterans homes in Paramus, Menlo Park and Vineland, where more than 200 residents have died in one of the nation’s worst nursing home disasters amid the pandemic.
Yet Discenza — and scores of other family members — are no closer to knowing the events surrounding their loved ones’ deaths than they were at the beginning of the pandemic.
Despite repeated promises to conduct an independent investigation and develop a “full accounting” of his administration’s handling of the pandemic — and in particular what happened in the veterans homes — Gov. Phil Murphy has not provided any substantive explanation for why so many men and women died in the three nursing homes his administration operates.
In fact, his administration has fought against the release of key veterans home documents for more than a year.
NorthJersey.com sued the Murphy administration last year after it denied a public records request for emails between top officials at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs over management at the homes during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.
After months of legal wrangling and court hearings, the administration turned over 147 pages of documents. Almost all of them were completely redacted.
It was the second time in a year that the Murphy administration blacked out documents NorthJersey.com had sought regarding the veterans homes. The first came in December 2020, when the administration redacted a key email that tied Murphy’s office to a controversial policy to discipline nurses and aides who used the Menlo Park home’s supply of protective masks without permission.
“Overall, when it comes to anything relating to COVID or other public health issues, the Murphy administration has been super tight-lipped,” said CJ Griffin, a Hackensack attorney who focuses on public records access and represented NorthJersey.com in its lawsuit. “I have had to write many objection letters and to sue multiple times on behalf of various requestors just to get some basic transparency.
“It’s important that journalists be able to see how our public employees responded to the COVID crisis so that mistakes are exposed and responses can be improved next time,” Griffin said.
Unredacted documents obtained via public records requests in 2020 by NorthJersey.com and other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, offered a glimpse into the breakdown and devastation at the veterans homes.
An inspection report and other documents showed how COVID-19 spread quickly through the Paramus home due to inadequate training, confusion among staff and some disturbing practices. Nurses’ aides didn’t know which residents had tested positive and which were waiting for results. A janitor mopped the floor of room after room, unaware that “STOP” signs on the doors meant an infected person was inside. And residents who tested positive for COVID were allowed to mingle with non-infected residents more than a month into the outbreak.
Another tranche of emails showed that managers were so adamantly opposed to letting staff wear masks in the first month of the pandemic that they sent home a worker who refused to remove a mask, barred ambulance workers from wearing them in the homes and devised penalties with help from Murphy’s office.
Despite those reports, many families say they need a top-to-bottom investigation to explain how so many things went so wrong, so quickly.
“It makes me feel that my parents’ deaths were insignificant,” Discenza said. “And it’s not just about them. Something has to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
A ‘full accounting’
Since the early months of the pandemic, Murphy has been calling for a “full accounting” and a “post-mortem” — terms he has used repeatedly but has never precisely defined — to find out what went wrong at the veterans facilities and other nursing homes.
Murphy promised “a full accounting to get to the bottom of what happened” in October 2020, days after he fired four top officials in charge of the homes that housed hundreds, including many veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
A year later, Murphy said there will be “a full accounting, without question, independent of my office,” during a gubernatorial debate in October 2021 when pressed by GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
And this month at his last regular pandemic briefing, Murphy said he didn’t have a “precise answer” about when an examination would begin, but that his administration has “committed very much publicly to doing a post-mortem, and that will include long-term care.”
A spokeswoman for Murphy did not respond last week to questions on where his efforts for a full accounting stands.
A “rapid review” of how the nursing homes performed during the pandemic that the Murphy administration commissioned for $500,000 barely mentioned the veterans homes.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts — where more than 70 residents died from COVID at a state veterans home in Holyoke — Gov. Charlie Baker appointed a special investigator within weeks of the outbreak who wrote a 174-page report detailing how care in the facility collapsed.
Other avenues to discern what happened at the New Jersey homes appear to be in limbo.
The state Attorney General’s Office opened a case looking into all New Jersey nursing homes, impaneled a grand jury in late 2020 and subpoenaed documents from the veterans homes. But family members who were interviewed more than a year ago say they haven’t heard since then from investigators. The U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation under the Trump administration, and authorities interviewed residents and staff at the homes in October.
Civil claims filed by the families could have produced information through depositions and unredacted document exchanges. But 119 cases were settled by the Murphy administration in December for $53 million.
With payouts that average $455,000 per family still pending, many families are reluctant to speak publicly about Murphy’s promises. Privately, many say they are angry that more hasn’t been done.
One of those willing to speak out is Stephen Mastropietro, whose father, Tom, died at the Paramus home in April 2020.
“The state has settled to try and keep things quiet,” he said. “Unfortunately there are things more important than money. While the settlement shows some responsibility, it doesn’t satisfy me.”
Vets documents denied
In March 2021, NorthJersey.com requested through the state Open Public Records Act correspondence between former DMAVA Commissioner Maj. Gen. Jemal Beale and six top-level agency employees, including the CEOs of both homes as well as Dr. Lisa Hou, who eventually succeeded Beale as commissioner.
The request asked for discussions regarding the Paramus and Menlo Park veterans homes in the first three months of the pandemic.
After delays by a DMAVA lawyer who said there were “hundreds of emails to evaluate,” the agency changed its position and denied what it called a “blanket request for documents” — even though the request listed specific names, subject matter and time periods for the emails sought.
NorthJersey.com sued DMAVA in May arguing that the agency could not deny the request as “overbroad” since it had already located the emails, which were of public importance.
The lawsuit eventually made its way to Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson, who told DMAVA to conduct a search of the emails. The agency returned 147 emails that it said matched what NorthJersey.com had requested.
But the emails were so heavily redacted that it was impossible to discern what they contained. Whole sections were blacked out, including one email from Beale that appears to list his financial concerns about dealing with the crisis.
After months of negotiating and attempts to secure other documents, NorthJersey.com decided to drop the case in late 2021, believing that it would be unable to compel the administration to remove the redactions.
The Murphy administration has often used the “deliberative” exemption in the public records law that allows agencies to withhold or redact information that the government may still use to formulate policy. Open-government advocates have long said the deliberative exemption is among the biggest and most abused loopholes in the law, because the government can claim that just about any piece of information can be used in making decisions — even if those decisions have already been made.
“We need transparency, so I hope that the state will start voluntarily releasing these communications under the common law to provide answers as to what went on in those homes,” said Griffin, NorthJersey.com’s attorney in the case.
The Legislature held only one hearing — back in August of 2020 — looking into the mismanagement of the veterans homes.
Although it was held before any link between Murphy’s office and the mask disciplinary measures were made public, it still provided dramatic testimony by Glenn Osborne, a Menlo Park resident, into the poor decisions made before and during the outbreak, and the ensuing chaos that engulfed the homes.
Republicans have long called for more hearings into the deaths at the veterans homes, and nursing homes in general, but have made no progress in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly.
The only Democrat who has publicly joined that call is Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, who co-sponsored a resolution last month with Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, to establish a seven-member committee with subpoena power to investigate how the administration handled the outbreaks. Gill did not return a call and emails seeking comment.
When asked last month by NorthJersey.com about whether he supports legislative hearings, Murphy said his policy is not to comment on pending legislation — even though he often does, including issuing a press release earlier that same week in support of a package of drug pricing bills.
A son seeks answers
When Tom Mastropietro, a 91-year-old Korean War veteran, died of COVID-19 on April 11, 2020, at the Paramus home, the facility was in such chaos that workers had mistaken him for another man who was still alive.
They told Mastropietro’s family that he was getting much better — when in fact he had been dead for hours. They told the other man’s family that he had died — when he was very much alive. Tom Mastropietro’s body was even sent to the other man’s funeral home before the mistake was realized. When Mastropietro’s son Stephen was told of the mix-up, he was crushed.
Stephen and his family have tried to move on from the death. They were interviewed by investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office in late 2020 but haven’t heard anything about the investigation in almost 18 months.
“Unfortunately, there have not been any signs or comments on the negligence or steps to avoid future issues,” Stephen Mastropietro said last week. “I haven’t heard anything on internal investigations, which is very disappointing and still eats at me, especially after the initial report that showed the leaders holding back information and not taking proper procedures.”
Stephen said he still feels a sense of guilt over his father’s death, even though he had no control over his care. All visitors, including family, had been barred from entering the homes under state orders a month before Tom Mastropietro died.
“I still have a hole in my life for not being able to see my father or be able to help and questioning myself if I did the right things for him,” he said.
And that’s why, Stephen says, Murphy needs to live up to his promises.
“My last conversation with Dad was when I was leaving the home and he was crying, thanking me for taking care of him. But did I?” Stephen asked. “This is what a real investigation would do, to help me answer this question.”
Staff Writer Dustin Racioppi contributed to this article.
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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