Jepsen’s longstanding relationship with SEIU has had a compromising effect on his discretion in the case.
On Monday and Tuesday, Jepsen joined the SEIU picket lines outside each of the five nursing homes operated by HealthBridge, to show “support for striking health care workers … [who] began strikes on July 3 over unfair labor practices after the company ended negotiations,” according to a media advisory on Jepsen’s official website.
Additionally, SEIU endorsed Jepsen in his 2010 campaign for the attorney general’s office. “Having the support of so many state employees will help me in my job as attorney general,” Jepsen said in 2010.
“Since the Attorney General has compromised his impartiality in this matter, we also call upon the Governor to appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 for what appears to be their involvement in these serious incidents,” HealthBridge’s statement added.
The attorney general’s office pushed back against that statement immediately Tuesday afternoon, but admitted the attorney general had a conflict of interest, saying he would be recusing himself from the “legal matters” involved with the case.
“There is no need for appointment of a special counsel,” said Susan Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jepson, in a statement to TheDC. “The Department of Public Health is the agency with authority to investigate adverse events at nursing homes. Healthbridge told the Office of the Attorney General that it was making a report to DPH. DPH confirmed with the OAG that it was aware of the reports and was looking into them.”
“The Attorney General has a responsibility to represent the broader public interest and his participation today [in the SEIU picket line] was aimed at drawing attention to important issues in hopes of expediting resolution of the conflict,” continued Kinsman. “Because Attorney General Jepsen has walked the picket line, he has recused himself from any legal matters involving Healthbridge and SEIU. The Office of the Attorney General, however, continues to serve as counsel to the Department of Public Health. If the agency’s investigation results in a request for legal assistance, the office is certainly prepared to provide it.”
HealthBridge told TheDC in response that prior to that statement, the company was unaware of the attorney general ever claiming he had recused himself.
“I believe that the office of the attorney general should be looking out for the well-being and safety of our residents,” Lisa Crutchfield, a spokeswoman for HealthBridge told TheDC when asked why the company was seeking the attorney general’s involvement.
“The union and the employees that are out on strike clearly put their own self-interest ahead of the safety of our residents,” Crutchfield said, “and we thought it is a matter that the state’s attorney general should pick up.”
If Jepsen’s conflict is keeping his office from opening an investigation, Connecticut’s governor might also be of little help in appointing a special counsel.
Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy, a Democrat, also walked the picket line with SEIU workers last week and criticized HealthBridge’s failure to reach an agreement with the union. “They’re trying to break the union, and we don’t want that to happen,” he told the striking workers.
A strikingly similar scenario has played out at least once before between Connecticut nursing homes and SEIU workers.
In 2001, District 1199 SEIU was again accused of sabotaging nursing home patients in the lead up to a worker strike.
The Hartford Courant reported at the time that Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney John Bailey “concluded in a damning report that many of the alleged incidents not only occurred but also were criminal.”:
“There is no doubt while some of the acts in question are crimes of nuisance and mischief, others could have had an effect resulting in seriously jeopardizing the [nursing home] residents’ health and safety,” the prosecutor’s report said.
Mr. Bailey’s investigators looked at evidence and information reported by 10 homes and found that equipment and sterile medical supplies had been tampered with, patient identification bracelets were removed, drugs were missing and a door to a supply room containing oxygen had been glued shut.
The removal of identification bracelets from patients apparently was the most pervasive act of sabotage — and could have had the most dangerous consequences because replacement workers would not know the patients. The bracelets are key to ensuring that patients get the right food and medicine.