Sgt. Schultz — ‘I know nothing’ — has nothing on the top brass in Illinois state government.
There was a lot of blame-laying and finger-pointing last week when state legislators held a public hearing aimed at learning how things went so wrong at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home.
Deputy Gov. Sol Flores and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike offered no answers but plenty of excuses that purported to explain how a coronavirus outbreak led to 36 deaths.
To hear them tell it, top officials at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the LaSalle home misled high-level aides to Gov. J.B. Pritzker when they called to find out how things were going.
A state inspector general’s report already has detailed the ugly facts surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. It revealed lax leadership at the top of the department and/or incompetence by those in charge of the facility.
Describing the response to the outbreak as “inefficient, reactive and, at times, chaotic,” the report made clear LaSalle administrators were unprepared when the coronavirus hit in 2020.
Considering that Pritzker locked the state down in March of that year, that failure to prepare was as deadly as it was inexcusable.
So the question is, how could the state Veterans Affairs Department have been so unprepared to deal with such an obvious threat that was known so far in advance?
One explanation is that Linda Chapa LaVia, the former legislator Pritzker appointed to preside over the agency, never should have been placed in such an important position. She apparently was in so far over her head that she didn’t bother trying to do the job, delegating her responsibilities to a subordinate.
The inspector general characterized Chapa LaVia as having “abdicated” her role even though she didn’t have the decency to leave on her own. She continued to cash her paychecks until she was cashiered by Pritzker in January.
Of course, no one knows Chapa LaVia’s side of the story, and it deserves a thorough airing.
She refused to speak with the inspector general’s investigators, but she ought to be called before the committee, subpoenaed if necessary.
It would be interesting to know what type of political debt Pritzker was repaying when he put Chapa LaVia in what proved to be an especially sensitive position. But unfortunately, it’s unclear whether legislators really want all the answers.
Credit investigators from the inspector general’s office for detailing reasons for part of this tragedy. But while chastising Chapa LaVia, they showed a conspicuous lack of interest in who appointed her and why.
Of course, Pritzker could answer that question himself. But all he’s done so far is defend the appointment while acknowledging that he regrets making the appointment.
The governor is not the only one. So do the families of those who died, a number of whom have retained lawyers and intend to sue the state.
The ostensible reasons for hearings of this nature is to learn what went wrong and take steps to ensure that the errors won’t be repeated in the future.
If that’s what is at issue here, the responsible officials should remember that competence ought to trump political clout. This being Illinois, it’s doubtful that lesson will be remembered for long.