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Stefanik, other congresspeople call for investigation into Justice Center

Rep. Elise Stefanik delivers her victory speech late on the night of Nov. 6, 2018, at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls. (Photo — Jenn March, for the Post-Star)

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, along with several other New York congresspeople, wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice Monday asking Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband to investigate the state Justice Center, which investigates the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and other state agencies that care for vulnerable people.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the Justice Center operates under the OPWDD.)

With Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York’s 1st Congressional District taking the lead, NY2’s Peter King, NY23’s Tom Reed and NY21’s Stefanik requested the DOJ investigate the Justice Center’s “failure to protect individuals with disabilities and Medicaid recipients who have died under state care.” All four representatives are Republicans.

The Justice Center’s Director of Public Information Christine Buttigieg said the agency is committed to transparency and said the letter was inaccurate.

“The letter to the Justice Department shamefully politicizes issues relating to some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers and relies on numerous false claims and inaccuracies regarding the Justice Center’s operations,” Buttigieg wrote in an email. “After a thorough investigation and review, the Justice Center pursues criminal charges in those cases where the evidence supports further action. In addition, district attorneys across the state are notified of every single abuse and neglect case that is reported to the Justice Center and are free to pursue charges as they see fit.”

The letter is a direct result of the work of advocate for the developmentally disabled Michael Carey, whose son Jonathan died while in OPWDD care in 2007.

For years, he has collected reports from OPWDD employees, documents attained using the Freedom of Information Law and the families of people in OPWDD care to reveal that sex offenders are being housed with vulnerable people across the state, pushing for the state Legislature to pass a bill requiring OPWDD employees to call 911 when they see or hear of medical emergencies or allegations of abuse of residents and assisting whistle-blowers in court when they face retaliation for speaking up.

Now, after he and former Judge Advocate General Corps lawyer Tom Kavanaugh presented their evidence of obstruction of justice, criminal conspiracy and Medicaid fraud to Zeldin, the congressman and several of his colleagues are calling for a federal investigation.

“Individuals with disabilities deserve full and equal protection under the law. However, in the State of New York, abuses have been ignored and swept under the rug,” Zeldin said in a press release. “It is unacceptable that the State of New York continues to pocket billions of federal tax dollars to care for these patients while neglecting to investigate suspicious deaths of patients that happen in their very facilities, and it is clear the State of New York refuses to hold itself accountable.”

Carey said he wants the investigation to shut down the Justice Center, and for the developmentally disabled to have proper access to 911, police services and district attorneys like everyone else.

“Federal authorities must intervene swiftly to stop the criminal cover-ups and to end the wide-scale discrimination in which the disabled are denied their 14th Amendment right to ‘equal protection of laws,'” Carey wrote in a press release. “The Justice Center must be stopped. It is directly involved in a massive Medicaid fraud scheme by protecting dangerous facilities that are misappropriating massive amounts of federal tax dollars.”

“These are serious allegations, and I share the strong concerns of other local leaders and members of our community,” Stefanik said in a press release. “These special needs homes provide a refuge for the most vulnerable in our community, and New York State must be diligent in ensuring their safety.”

The letter points out that New York spends over $75 billion a year on its Medicaid program, second only to California, and said that the Justice Center bringing criminal charges against less than 2.5 percent of total cases of substantiated abuse or neglect of disabled persons and declining to investigate nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled individuals residing in state care is, “a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

The letter referenced nine people who died while in state care in Suffolk County since 2013, the April 2018 death of Christopher Blair at the Valley Ridge facility, which had no official investigation, and records published by the New York Times which, “indicate that only 5 percent of the 13,000 cases of abuse recorded in state-operated facilities for the disabled were referred to law enforcement.”

“Dozens of allegations related to staff abuses, patient neglect, sexual assaults and even patient deaths have been reported over the last few years, yet the New York State Justice Center, which is authorized to investigate all reports of abuse and neglect, pursue administrative sanctions against staff found responsible for misconduct, and prosecute criminal offenses through its Special Prosecutor/Inspector General sharing jurisdiction with local district attorneys, has consistently failed to perform these responsibilities and continues to operate without any added oversight or scrutiny.”

The investigation is currently being considered by the Department of Justice.

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