Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Government, media share blame for Anderson Guest House blaze

Anderson Guest House owner Robert Dupont faces more federal Medicaid fraud charges, which may have never been brought to light had it not been for the November 2006 fire in which 11 people lost their lives.

In my new book, The Turner Report, I point out that Missouri's state government had one opportunity after another to run Dupont out of the business, but overlooked what should have been obvious.

In the book, I also placed a share of the blame on the media. It took 11 deaths for the media to finally shine the spotlight on Robert Dupont. An 18-year-old reporter, Cait Purinton, working for me at The Carthage Press and The Lamar Press, wrote one story after another, backed by county, state, and federal documents which showed that Dupont was gaming the system, something which should have been obvious, but somehow was not. Not one media outlet, print or broadcast picked up on this story.

The events that brought Dupont under the Press' scrutiny 10 years ago included a fire and the near fatal beating of a resident at his Lamar Guest House facility. Cait uncovered the information that Dupont's Butler Guest House and Springfield Guest House had been closed, and that Dupont and his partner at the time, Karl Householder, were not meeting state requirements for financial solvency. In fact, their company, Sandhill, Inc., had filed for bankruptcy, and had not paid federal or county taxes. When Cait brought that information to the attention of officials at the State Division of Aging, it was the first time they had heard of it.

The following excerpt comes from my book:

The Lamar Guest House was also hit by the fire bug, according to Division of Aging documents. On March 17, 1997, in a small upstairs room, a resident piled paper and combustible materials and set a small spark that grew into a fire. He panicked and left the room. The Guest House was evacuated, but after firefighters had the blaze under control, they found a woman asleep in her room. A tragic situation was averted, but things could have been far worse. A Dec. 16, 1996, inspection of the Guest House showed the fire alarm had been silenced, problems existed with the emergency lighting, the facility did not have the proper amount of fire extinguishers, the smoke separation barrier code had been violated, and the fire alarm panel was not functioning properly.
It wasn’t as if Dupont and Householder were not aware of what could have happened. Between 1994 and 1997, four fires had been set at the Lamar Guest House. In one of her articles, Cait noted, “According to the documents, the basic structure of the facility creates a situation in which the building could burn rapidly if a fire occurred.”
“At the time of a previous fire, a fireman said he did not know why the building did not burn to the ground,” the inspection report said.
As Cait pored over the documents, she discovered fire problems everywhere. “Problems have escalated with aggressive residents and residents who do not follow the smoking rules set at the facility,” she wrote. “One resident was found in her room asleep with a cigarette in her hand that had burned down.”
The inspection report said, “The facility has not provided supervision to prevent harm to this and other residents, nor have they followed their own policies which are present in each incident report.”
The state allowed Sandhill to get away with one violation after another from 1993 until it finally closed the Lamar Guest House in 1997, as one of Cait’s articles in the July 11, 1997 Lamar Press revealed:
“The Lamar Guest House is not meeting the needs of the residents required by the regulation that every resident is to be clean, dry and free of offensive body and mouth odor.
“Checks by the Division of Aging included the finding of five residents who smelled of perspiration and body odor, were unkempt with oily, uncombed hair and were wearing the same clothes for more than two days in a row.
“According to one resident’s records, a psychiatric evaluation and care plan suggested her caregivers bathe and shampoo her hair. Inspectors found her hair to be oily and uncombed.
“Another resident was reported to have such foul odor ‘his room smelled and his route about the facility could be traced by his foul odor,’ according to the documents.”

Cait’s article noted roaches were found all over the Lamar Guest House in inspections in 1994, 1995, and 1997.
Cait Purinton did a remarkable piece of reporting, one which was recognized by the Kansas City Press Club as she received an investigative reporting award, the only award ever won by The Lamar Press. It would be nice to say that her brilliant investigative work led to the closing of the Guest House facilities. Only one, however, the Lamar Guest House, closed as a result of Cait’s tenacity. The name Sandhill, Inc., passed into history and Robert DuPont continued to expand on his Guest House empire.
A large part of the responsibility for that oversight, no doubt, belongs to the state of Missouri’s Division of Aging. I have always believed the media also contributed. If the same kind of pressure had been placed on the Division of Aging in 1997, as the Joplin Globe, the Joplin television stations, the Neosho Daily News, and other media outlets as the pressure put on state officials after the Anderson Guest House fire, 11 lives might have been saved. No one ever picked up on the story and it was far easier for the state to close the Lamar Guest House and simply forget about the wanton way in which Robert Dupont and Karl Householder ignored and took advantage of state regulations that were designed to protect the people.
It would be easy to say that the passing of nine years between the closing of the Lamar Guest House and the Anderson Guest House fire made it difficult to foresee what might have happened, but the media did not connect the dots even when the clues were right in front of them.
Just as the state was blissfully unaware that Dupont’s company had filed for bankruptcy protection in the 1990s, it also failed to note that he filed for bankruptcy a second time in 2004, something that was only mentioned in The Turner Report.
Though Dupont had already been convicted of fraud at that time, he still listed his job as executive director of River of Life Ministries. The Guest House locations in Anderson, Joplin (2), and Carl Junction were listed as belonging to Dupont.
At that time, he owed $57,500 to the Internal Revenue Service, and $120,100 in fines connected with his fraud conviction. In another court case pending at that time, he was being sued by Land Purchase of Jasper County, which he owed $370,000, according to the bankruptcy court documents. He listed $994,000 in assets with $975,000 of that coming from real estate, and $1,419,675 in liabilities.
According to the bankruptcy court documents, at that point Dupont not only served as River of Life Ministries' executive director and pulled down a salary of $60,000 plus, but he also charged the not-for-profit organization $12,000 per month rent, with $11,400 going to the bank and the other $600 to Dupont.
The bankruptcy petition was later dismissed with Dupont and his wife filing a document saying they "would prefer to pay their creditors off on their own."
Until the Anderson Guest House fire, the state never bothered to check and see if these Guest Houses with connections to a man who had twice filed for bankruptcy, were financially solvent.
As much information as Cait uncovered in the 1990s, and I dug up from bankruptcy court records a few years ago, action was finally taken after the media onslaught that followed the Anderson fire. Apparently, it takes 11 deaths to get the media to take notice.

The book also contains more information about Dupont, his operation of the Guest House facilities, and the efforts made by some state legislators to gut reforms to the nursing home industry even after the fatal fire at the Anderson Guest House.

No comments: