Four years ago, after revelations that registered sex offenders and other ex-cons were living among some of society’s most vulnerable people in Illinois nursing homes, the heat was on state officials.
A series of Chicago Sun-Times reports had documented attacks on nursing home residents and revealed that the ex-cons, many of them under 50, were living in the homes, often unbeknownst to other residents or even to employees of the facilities.
In response, the General Assembly passed a law making Illinois the first state in the nation to require criminal background checks on all nursing home residents.
And the state Department of Public Health acted quickly to make that happen. It hired two security companies on a no-bid, “emergency” basis to help dig up any details about nursing home residents who had criminal pasts.
Now, amid new concerns over nursing home safety, a task force convened by Gov. Quinn has concluded that the law hasn’t done enough to ensure that those who live in nursing homes are safe. It’s urging state health and law enforcement officials to get together and “resolve this problem.”
Here’s a place to start: by digging a little deeper into the background of anyone they hire to dig into the backgrounds of nursing home residents. Had health officials done that from the very beginning, red flags might have popped up.
For one, the head of one of the security companies the health department hired in summer 2006 — V.I.P. Security & Detective Services, of Matteson — reported on its contract that the company had been in business for two years and had annual sales of $50,000.
V.I.P., however, had been incorporated just three months before, according to state records that the Department of Public Health could have checked at the Illinois secretary of state’s office.
Also, despite the “Security & Detective Services” part of its name, V.I.P. didn’t obtain the state licenses it needed to operate as a security and detective agency until Sept. 8, 2006 — the same day that the health department signed the deal to hire the company for $400,000 for six months without seeking competitive bids to do the work, records show.
The Department of Public Health has given V.I.P. three subsequent contracts to stay on the job. So far, it’s paid the company a total of nearly $2 million.
For that money, the background checks V.I.P. helps compile often “contain incomplete information” and “are not completed on time,” according to a report last month from Quinn’s task force. In October, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan criticized health officials for failing to audit or even “spot check” V.I.P.’s work.
It’s tough to gauge exactly how much blame VIP deserves. Officials would not release copies of its reports, citing patient confidentiality laws. And the company isn’t the only player involved. Nursing homes themselves start the process of obtaining criminal background checks on new residents. And the Illinois State Police, two health department employees and a forensic psychologist — who has been paid $833,918 by the health department since 2006 — all have roles in determining whether nursing home residents who have committed crimes might pose a risk to others in the homes.
Still, in light of the new spotlight on nursing home safety, it seems likely that V.I.P. will draw new scrutiny.
State records listed Bennie Bryant III as the company’s president and “director of operations” in 2006. He’s also a south suburban cop — a detective-sergeant with the Village of Phoenix police department, records show.
Bryant’s sister, Roxanne B. Jackson, is a lawyer who was the state health department’s human resources director in 2003 and 2004, back when the agency was headed by Dr. Eric Whitaker, who’s now a top executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center but is better known as a close friend of President Obama. In 2006, Jackson was V.I.P.’s “director of legal services,” records show.
In her 14 months on the state payroll as a full-time employee, Jackson also practiced law on the side, handling dozens of bankruptcy cases — including a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case for her parents, both of whom later would become corporate officers of V.I.P., records show.
Days after quitting her $100,000-a-year state job in October 2004, Jackson filed for bankruptcy herself. In the papers she filed with the Bankruptcy Court, she listed as income the $60,000 a year she said she made running her law firm but made no mention of the state job she had just quit. Both Jackson’s and her parents’ bankruptcy cases are now closed.
Jackson did legal work in 2005 for Tony Rezko, an adviser and top campaign fund-raiser for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Rezko was convicted in June 2008 of wide-ranging corruption involving state deals. Jackson was not named in those proceedings, nor has she faced any criminal charges.
Besides Jackson, Bryant and their parents, records show V.I.P. also has included Bennie Bryant’s wife, Katrina, as a corporate officer and another brother, Derek Bryant, as director of safety.
The Sun-Times e-mailed both Jackson and Bennie Bryant questions about the company. Reached last week, Bennie Bryant described some of those questions as “erroneous” and said he would provide answers later.
Subsequently, though, neither he nor Jackson returned calls or responded to e-mail messages.
So why did the state hire V.I.P. in the first place? Melaney Arnold, a health department spokeswoman, said her agency “solicited recommendations from various state agencies and department offices” and came up with three names — V.I.P., Myers Service Inc. https://www.detectiveservices.com and a third company.
The agency ended up hiring V.I.P. and Myers on an emergency basis in 2006.
Arnold said state officials took V.I.P.’s word about its experience.
“When a vendor signs a contract, that vendor is certifying that everything it included in the contract is true and accurate,” Arnold said. “The length of time the vendor was in business was not a requirement of the contract and not a determining factor in signing the contract.”
Whitaker’s then-chief of staff, Quin Golden, signed the emergency contract on Whitaker’s behalf on the same day that the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation granted V.I.P. its state security- and detective-agency licenses.
In all, V.I.P. and Myers analyzed the criminal backgrounds of 1,521 convicted felons living in Illinois nursing homes by early 2007, when V.I.P. beat out Myers and two other firms in competitive bidding to hang on to the state deal.
Arnold said Jackson’s role as a former high-ranking health department employee had nothing to do with V.I.P. getting the state business.
Whitaker and Golden, also now working for the University of Chicago health system, weren’t involved in picking V.I.P. over Myers and the others, Arnold said.
“A one-year contract with the potential for two one-year renewals was awarded to V.I.P. in July 2007 as the result of a competitive-bid process,” Arnold said. “V.I.P. received the contract based on scoring the highest number of points.”