From GG: Atty Donzinger disbarred and detained for fighting Chevron mass pollution in Ecuador

Steven Donziger sits for a portrait at his home in Manhattan, NY, where is on house arrest for his work with Amazon, Wednesday, January 15, 2020. ( Annie Tritt for The Intercept)
Another attorney, fighting to do mass justice is disbarred, humiliated and detained–all for doing the right thing.  These idiots should all be ashamed of themselves
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Steven Donziger sits for a portrait at his home in Manhattan, N.Y., where he is on house arrest. Photo: Annie Tritt for The Intercept

HOW THE ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER WHO WON A MASSIVE JUDGMENT AGAINST CHEVRON LOST EVERYTHING

Steven Donziger won a multibillion-dollar judgment against Chevron in Ecuador. The company sued him in New York, and now he’s under house arrest.

LAST AUGUST, DURING the second-hottest year on record, while the fires in the Amazon rainforest were raging, the ice sheet in Greenland was melting, and Greta Thunberg was being greeted by adoring crowds across the U.S., something else happened that was of great relevance to the climate movement: An attorney who has been battling Chevron for more than a decade over environmental devastation in South America was put on house arrest.

Few news outlets covered the detention of Steven Donziger, who won a multibillion-dollar judgment in Ecuador against Chevron over the massive contamination in the Lago Agrio region and has been fighting on behalf of Indigenous people and farmers there for more than 25 years. So on August 6, Donziger left a Lower Manhattan courthouse unnoticed and boarded the 1 train home with an electronic monitoring device newly affixed to his ankle. Save for the occasional meeting with his lawyer or other court-sanctioned appointment, he has remained there ever since.

“I’m like a corporate political prisoner,” Donziger told me as we sat in his living room recently. The attorney, who is 6-foot-3, graying, and often used to be mistaken for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he was able to walk the city streets, was surprisingly stoic and resigned about his predicament during my two visits to the apartment he shares with his wife and 13-year-old son. But on this particular Wednesday, as the winter sunlight in his living room was dimming and the charger for his spare ankle bracelet battery flashed on a nearby shelf, his optimism about his epic battle against one of the biggest oil companies in the world seemed to be flagging. “They are trying to totally destroy me.”

Donziger is not exaggerating. As he was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company expressly said its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And since then, Chevron has continued its all-out assault on Donziger in what’s become one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law. Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him. As a result, Donziger has been disbarred and his bank accounts have been frozen. He now has a lien on his apartment, faces exorbitant fines, and has been prohibited from earning money. As of August, a court has seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $228 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.

In an emailed statement, Chevron wrote that “any jurisdiction that observes the rule of law should find the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment to be illegitimate and unenforceable.” The statement also said that “Chevron will continue to work to hold the perpetrators of this fraud accountable for their actions, including Steven Donziger, who has committed a litany of corrupt and illegal acts related to his Ecuadorian judicial fraud against Chevron.”

The developments that led to Donziger’s confinement were, like much of the epic legal battle he’s been engaged in for decades, highly unusual. The home confinement is his punishment for refusing a request to hand over his cellphone and computer, something that’s been asked of few other attorneys. To Donziger, who had already endured 19 days of depositions and given Chevron large portions of his case file, the request was beyond the pale, and he appealed it on the grounds that it would require him to violate his commitments to his clients. Still, Donziger said he’d turn over the devices if he lost the appeal. But even though the underlying case was civil, the federal court judge who has presided over the litigation between Chevron and Donziger since 2011, Lewis A. Kaplan, drafted criminal contempt charges against him.

In another legal peculiarity, in July, Kaplan appointed a private law firm to prosecute Donziger, after the Southern District of New York declined to do so — a move that is virtually unprecedented. And, as Donziger’s lawyer has pointed out, the firm Kaplan chose, Seward & Kissel, likely has ties to Chevron.

Making the case even more extraordinary, Kaplan bypassed the standard random assignment process and handpicked someone he knew well, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, to oversee the case being prosecuted by the firm he chose. It was Preska who sentenced Donziger to home detention and ordered the seizure of his passport, even though Donziger had appeared in court on hundreds of previous occasions.

Manuel Silva a peasant  shows an oil spill in Lago Agrio,in Ecuador eastern Amazonian jungles,Monday,Dec.14,1998. Ecuadorean Indians have suited Texaco Inc.  accusing the company of turning the region's rain forests into a "toxic waste dump" by drilling for oil.(AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa).

Ecuadorian local Manuel Silva shows evidence of an oil spill in Lago Agrio on Dec. 14, 1998. Indigenous Ecuadoreans sued Texaco, accusing the company of turning the region’s rainforests into a “toxic waste dump” by drilling for oil.

Photo: Dolores Ochoa/AP

A Tainted Witness

Despite Donziger’s current predicament, the case against Chevron in Ecuador was a spectacular victory. The twisted legal saga began in 1993, when Donziger and other attorneys filed a class-action suit in New York against Texaco on behalf of more than 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people in the Amazon over massive contamination from the company’s oil drilling there. Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, has insisted that Texaco cleaned up the area where it operated and that its former partner, the national oil company of Ecuador, was responsible for any remaining pollution.

At Chevron’s request, the legal proceedings over the “Amazon Chernobyl” were moved to Ecuador, where the courts were “impartial and fair,” as the oil company’s attorneys wrote in a filing at the time. The move to Ecuador, where the legal system does not involve juries, may have also appealed because it spared Chevron a jury trial. In any case, an Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron in 2011 and ordered the company to pay $18 billion in compensation, an amount that was later reduced to $9.5 billion. After years of struggling with the health and environmental consequences of oil extraction, the impoverished Amazonian plaintiffs had won a historic judgment from one of the biggest corporations in the world.

But Donziger and his clients never had a moment to savor their David-over-Goliath victory. Even though the ruling was subsequently upheld by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court, Chevron immediately made clear that it would not be paying the judgment. Instead, Chevron moved its assets out of the country, making it impossible for the Ecuadorians to collect.

That year, Chevron filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, suit against Donziger in New York City. Although the suit originally sought roughly $60 billion in damages, and civil trials involving monetary claims of more than $20 entitle a defendant to a jury, Chevron dropped the monetary claims two weeks before the trial.

In its statement, Chevron wrote that the company “focused the RICO case on obtaining injunctive relief against the furtherance of Donziger’s extortionate scheme against the company.”

Instead, that case was decided solely by Kaplan, who ruled in 2014 that the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron was invalid because it was obtained through “egregious fraud” and that Donziger was guilty of racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The decision hinged on the testimony of an Ecuadorian judge named Alberto Guerra, who claimed that Donziger had bribed him during the original trial and that the decision against Chevron had been ghostwritten.

Guerra was a controversial witness. Chevron had prepped him on more than 50 occasions before his testimony, paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars, and arranged for the judge and his family members to move to the United States with a generous monthly stipend that was 20 times the salary he received in Ecuador. In 2015, when Guerra testified in an international arbitration proceeding, he admitted that he had lied and changed his story multiple times. According to Chevron, Guerra’s inaccuracies didn’t change the thrust of his testimony. For his part, Judge Kaplan wrote that his court “would have reached precisely the same result in this case even without the testimony of Alberto Guerra.” In its statement, Chevron said that Guerra was relocated to the U.S. for his safety and noted that the court found that the company’s contacts with the Ecuadorian judge were “proper and transparent.”

Lawyers for Donziger said the changes in Guerra’s testimony completely undermined his original bribery allegations, which Donziger has consistently denied. In any case, that evidence emerged after the trial, and an appeals court declined to consider the new information and ruled against Donziger in 2016.

“He has effectively been convicted of bribery by the finding of a single judge in a case in which bribery wasn’t even the charge.”

Had Donziger been criminally charged with bribery, a jury would have assessed Guerra’s credibility. Instead, in the RICO case, which was civil, the decision about a key witness came down to one person — Kaplan — who chose to believe him. That choice has set the stage for the legal losses Donziger has suffered since, according to some close watchers of the Chevron case.

“On the basis of Kaplan saying, ‘I believe this witness; I find Donziger guilty of the crime of bribery of the judge’ — on the basis of that, he’s been destroyed. That is the pinnacle element of all of the other claims against him. And if you take that one out, the rest of them — they’re just not there,” said Charles Nesson, an attorney and Harvard Law School professor. “He has effectively been convicted of bribery by the finding of a single judge in a case in which bribery wasn’t even the charge,” Nesson said of Donziger. “I teach evidence, that you have to prove what you assert. But the proof in this case is the thinnest.”

Nesson, who represented Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case and the plaintiffs in the suit of W. R. Grace featured in the book and film “A Civil Action,” teaches Donziger’s case in his “Fair Trial” course, using it as an example of a decidedly unfair trial. “Donziger epitomizes a person in asymmetric civil litigation who can now be denied a fair trial,” he explains to his students.

Nesson is one of several legal scholars who have opined that Kaplan has a soft spot for Chevron, which the judge once described as “a company of considerable importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels, and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day.”

In contrast, the judge has exhibited antipathy for Donziger, according to his former lawyer, John Keker, who saw the case as a “Dickensian farce,” in which “Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit.” Keker withdrew from the case in 2013 after noting that “Chevron will file any motion, however meritless, in the hope that the court will use it to hurt Donziger.”

Steven Donziger sits for a portrait at his home in Manhattan, NY, where is on house arrest for his work with Amazon, Wednesday, January 15, 2020. ( Annie Tritt for The Intercept)

Donziger displays the ankle monitor he is required to wear.

Photo: Annie Tritt for The Intercept

Donziger’s current prohibition from working, traveling, earning money, and leaving his home shows how successful Chevron’s strategy has been. But even as his fate hangs in the balance, Donziger’s case matters far beyond the life of this one lawyer.

“It should be nothing short of terrifying for any activist challenging corporate power and the oil industry in the U.S.,” said Paul Paz y Miño, associate director of Amazon Watch, an organization devoted to the protection of the rainforest and Indigenous people in the Amazon basin. “They’ve made it clear there’s no amount of money that’s too much to spend on this case,” he said of Chevron. “They will stop at nothing.”

The Chevron case may be most devastating for the plaintiffs in the Amazon, who never received their judgment despite being left with hundreds of unlined waste pits and contaminated water and soil from millions of gallons of spilled crude oil and billions of gallons of dumped toxic waste. Everything that’s happened to Donziger “is small potatoes compared to the fact that Kaplan has rendered the damage the company actually did as totally irrelevant,” said Nesson.

But the latest twists and turns in the Chevron case may also be particularly bad news for climate activists. A mere 20 companies are responsible for a third of the greenhouse gases emitted in the modern era; Chevron ranks second only to Saudi Aramco among them. And it’s increasingly clear that addressing the climate crisis will require confronting these mega-emitters, whose resources for litigation dwarf that of any individual.

Making Chevron and other companies clean up the messes created by their oil production will speed the transition away from fossil fuels, according to Rex Weyler, an environmental advocate who co-founded Greenpeace International and directed the original Greenpeace Foundation. “If hydrocarbon companies are forced to pay for the true costs of their product, which include these environmental costs, it will make the alternative energy systems more competitive,” said Weyler.

Accordingly, Weyler feels that the climate movement should focus on Chevron’s case — and Donziger’s legal battle. “One of the most effective things climate activists can do right now to change the system would be to not let Chevron get away with polluting in these countries, whether Ecuador, Nigeria, or anywhere” said Weyler. While some human rights and environmental advocates have tried to call attention to Donziger’s case and Chevron’s bullying of him, Weyler felt that the outcry should be louder.

After seeing what’s happened to Donziger, and some of his former allies, whom Chevron has gone after as “nonparty co-conspirators,” people may be afraid to stand up to the company. Donziger himself is living in fear. There is no set punishment when a judge files for criminal contempt of court, so he spends his days worrying over what will happen to him next. “It’s scary,” he told me. “I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

But Weyler pointed out that Chevron, which could still be forced to pay the multibillion-dollar judgment by courts in another country, is also afraid. “They are afraid of the precedent. Not only is Chevron afraid, the entire extraction industry is afraid of the precedent,” said Weyler. “They do not want to be held responsible for the pollution of their industry.”

from KKD: Mass Fraud in Nursing Homes and the details on how the bilk the US govt

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article244516407.html

Lots of eye opening details in this article.  Nursing homes should not receive a dime of taxpayer money any longer until they clean up their act.  And if an elder or disabled wants to go home, that should happen ASAP.

Someone has to put a stop to this horrific system of abuse and neglect for fun and profit.

As Florida nursing home residents died, operators raked in federal handouts

BY BEN WIEDER

AUGUST 06, 2020 08:30 AM , UPDATED AUGUST 06, 2020 01:58 PM

Florida Gov. DeSantis gives coronavirus update

Gov. Ron DeSantis held a coronavirus news conference at Broward Health on Monday, August 3, 2020. BY THE FLORIDA CHANNEL

Heather Williams knew on April 28 that her mom, 63-year-old Sarita Redmond, had tested positive for COVID-19. But the Southern Oaks Care Center, which had become a petri dish of infection, would tell Williams nothing more.

Call after call to the Pensacola nursing home went unanswered, Williams said. And a state executive order intended to protect elders in long-term care barred her from visiting her mother.

Williams asked local police to make a welfare check in mid-May. The Pensacola Police Department told her that COVID-19 restrictions forbid that, too.

“I didn’t know what else I could do,” Williams said.

The day before Williams learned that her mother had COVID, Southern Oaks reported that 92 residents and 15 employees at the 210-bed facility had tested positive for the virus — the most cases of any nursing home in the state at that point.

It’s one of a number of troubled Florida facilities connected to Eliezer Scheiner, a New York nursing home operator who has made headlines for the poor quality of care in his homes in other states, although the connections are obscured in records. He is also known for his fundraising for President Donald Trump.

Nursing homes, which rely almost exclusively on state and federal payments from Medicaid and Medicare, are heavy political spenders and not shy about flexing that political muscle. As COVID-19 has led to more than 150,000 cases and more than 40,000 deaths nationwide in nursing homes, owners have pushed for immunity from lawsuits stemming from their handling of the virus. That is despite the fact that problems at some homes predate the virus and that industry insiders acknowledge many nursing homes didn’t have sufficient infection controls to stop the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19.

While they’ve had mixed success in winning immunity, nursing homes have gotten nearly $10 billion in federal funds from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services to help offset COVID-19 costs.

Late last year, Scheiner organized a fundraiser that brought in roughly $3 million to support Trump’s re-election bid, giving $750,000 himself.

“I want to thank Eli Scheiner for doing such an incredible job,” Trump said at last year’s fundraiser.

While Scheiner’s fundraising prowess has garnered praise from the president, his nursing homes have generated reproach from regulators.

Of the the 24 Florida nursing homes tied to Scheiner and a business partner, Teddy Lichtschein, more than a third are on the state’s Watch List for troubled nursing homes, and health regulators reported 114 verified complaints at the homes between November 2016 and November 2019, state records show.

Florida facilities connected to them have also racked up more than $485,000 in fines from the federal government since 2017 and nearly $70,000 in fines from the state of Florida in the same time period.

The coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the homes’ shortcomings. More than 100 residents and employees have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by exposure to the virus, at nursing homes linked to Scheiner and Lichtschein, according to the Miami Herald’s analysis of state records. The loss of life is among the highest totals of any network of homes in the state, a Miami Herald analysis of state and federal data shows.

The Miami Herald spoke with relatives of current and former residents at several of Scheiner’s 24 facilities. Many painted a similar picture of poorly managed homes that have kept families in the dark during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida to release names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis orders release of names of elder care homes with positive COVID-19 cases. BY FLORIDA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Lorraine Bydalek’s 44-year-old daughter, whose cerebral palsy leaves her wholly dependent on caregivers, contracted COVID-19 at the North Lake Care Center in Lake Park in early May, after the facility had been in lockdown for months. Bydalek said North Lake didn’t do enough to protect residents from contracting the virus, for example allowing residents requiring treatments at outside facilities to be in close proximity to her daughter.

“They’re constantly being exposed,” she said.

Crystal Knowles kept running into dead-ends whenever she tried to learn about the status of her 61-year-old father, George Knowles, who spent nearly two weeks at the Palms Care Center in Lauderdale Lakes in March in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was very hard to have a family member there and not know what’s going on exactly,” she said. “Trying to call the facility was the worst customer experience I’ve ever had. It was the complete run-around.”

Williams’ assessment of the Pensacola home where her mother contracted COVID-19 was equally blunt: “That facility, in my opinion, should be shut down.”

Her mother’s care at the facility was even subject to an investigation for abuse and neglect by the Florida Department of Children & Families. The Southern Oaks Care Center said the investigation exonerated the home, but Williams said she hadn’t yet been informed of the results. The department confirmed the existence of the investigation, but would not confirm its findings.

The Pensacola nursing home said that it’s currently COVID-19 free and that it had the highest early COVID-19 totals because it had tested residents and staff earlier than other nearby facilities. Amanda Waddell, the home’s community liaison, said its phones went down in April because a contractor working across the street accidentally severed the facility’s lines.

Waddell defended the care provided by the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At our facility many who tested positive were asymptomatic and thankfully our mortality rates were very much below the averages at other skilled nursing facilities, but every loss was and remains tragic,” Waddell said in an e-mail.

The North Lakes Care Center pushed back on criticism of its practices.

“It appears that you are sending us a list of questions that are applicable to all nursing homes in the State of Florida and elsewhere in the country,” said the administrator, Steven Landa, in response to questions about complaints by family members about the care for patients during the pandemic.

Scheiner, Lichtschein and the Palms Care Center did not return phone calls or e-mails with detailed questions.

‘BYZANTINE ARRANGEMENT’

Property records for the facilities show that they are owned by companies listing Scheiner, Lichtschein or employees at their Brooklyn company, TL Management LLC, as the officers, with the same Brooklyn shipping store listed as the business address for all of the entities.

But Scheiner and Lichtschein aren’t listed as owners of any of the homes in state or federal nursing home records. Instead, another New York man, Michael Bleich, is listed as indirect owner of each facility in federal nursing home records and as an officer in state corporation records.

Bleich appears to have become involved with many of the facilities in 2015, according to Florida state records. In a master sublease agreement obtained by the Herald from the same year, a company controlled by Bleich, Care Master Tenant Inc., leased 11 of the properties from Scheiner and Lichtschein’s TL Healthcare Holdings. The agreement shows that Bleich wasn’t just leasing the property on which the facilities are located, but the licenses and medical records, too. When the lease ended, Scheiner and Lichtstein would retain control of the licenses and other related assets.

Bleich didn’t respond to phone calls and text messages. Reached by the Herald in late April, when Southern Oaks had first reported the most COVID-19 cases in the state, he told the Herald, “Call the facility, I’m not going to talk to you.”

DeSantis says healthcare workers have responded to 93 elder care facilities for coronavirus

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on April 13, 2020, that teams of healthcare workers have responded to 93 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities due to coronavirus.

The complex legal structure of these homes isn’t uncommon among nursing homes and other long-term care centers. Trying to determine who actually owns a nursing home regularly involves navigating a maze of shell companies.

That’s by design.

2012 presentation by top law firm Baker Donelson touted the advantages of a “complex corporate structure” for long-term care facilities in limiting the scope of “regulatory sanctions or penalties” and potential damages in a lawsuit.

“Many plaintiffs’ attorneys will never conduct corporate structure discovery because it’s too expensive and time consuming,” the presentation aimed at nursing home executives and attorneys said.

Ken Connors, an attorney in South Carolina who has brought numerous suits against senior care companies in Florida and across the South, said: “It’s a byzantine arrangement that is calculated to obscure the people who are making the operational decisions and by virtue of that obscurity immunize the people making them.”

In the wake of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 3,000 residents and staff statewide, nursing home operators have sought formal immunity from negligence lawsuits related to their handling of the pandemic. The nursing home industry wrote a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in early April requesting that he extend sovereign immunity to nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities and other healthcare providers. So far, DeSantis hasn’t indicated whether he supports granting immunity to the owners.

But at the federal level, nursing home owners have found an ally in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who has said he supports including liability protections in future rounds of coronavirus legislative relief.

Scheiner and Lichtschein redoubled their political efforts as COVID-19 spread this spring.

Scheiner wrote a $50,000 check to another pro-Trump committee in May and TL Management hired several federal lobbyists in April and May. The roster included Brian Ballard, the Floridian Politico called the “most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington”; a former top aide to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Nick Muzin; and Emily Hargan, the wife of the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

Filings show that they were hired to lobby on a range of topics including “Federal civil liability protection in regards to coronavirus for skilled nursing homes” and “obtaining federal and state assistance for nursing homes dealing with COVID-19.”

The efforts appear to have already paid off. The Florida facilities have received between $29.5 and $47 million in competitive federal coronavirus relief funds as part of the federal CARES Act, on top of increased federal reimbursements for testing and up to $8.6 million in additional federal funds distributed to nursing homes, according to a set formula. Nursing homes tied to Scheiner and Lichtschein in New York and Texas took in an additional $18.5 to $31.5 million in the competitive funds. All told, nursing homes tied to Scheiner and Lichtschein reaped between $48 million and $78 million in CARES Act funds.

Each Florida facility was awarded money from the HHS Federal Provider Relief Fund, which comes with no strings attached. Meanwhile, 21 of the 24 nursing homes tied to Scheiner and Lichtschein obtained between $14.5 and $32 million combined in paycheck protection program loans in late April and May, which is the most of any nursing home operator in the state, according to the Herald’s analysis of loan data and nursing home records. The loans are forgiven if they are used for payroll and other approved expenses. Recipients are supposed to indicate how many jobs were saved thanks to the money, but in data released by the U.S. Small Business Administration the number of jobs retained is listed as zero for 20 of the 21 loans.

‘TROUBLED FACILITIES’

Interviews and records suggest problems at the homes connected to Scheiner and Lichtschein long predate the virus’ spread.

The state of Florida denied two nursing home license applications submitted by Bleich in 2019, noting that 24 homes associated with Bleich had garnered 114 substantiated complaints between 2016 and 2019 — far more than other applicants for the same licenses. Bleich wrote in one application that he “acquired several troubled facilities in or facing bankruptcy in 2018” and had “also acquired other facilities, many with physical plants that are ending their useful lives.”

The Williston Care Center near Gainesville was fined $60,000 by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2019 after staff at the home waited too long to perform CPR on a resident who was choking on her lunch, federal inspectors found. The resident was discovered slumped over in her wheelchair in the dining room, her lips blue and with no pulse. But instead of performing CPR immediately in the dining room, the staff wheeled the resident to her room, and transferred her to her bed before starting CPR. She was taken to the hospital 15 minutes later and pronounced dead two hours after that.

In January, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration fined the Cypress Care Center in Wildwood, an hour outside of Orlando, $20,000 after a resident with diabetes and a related neurological disorder died in May 2019 after being left outside, unattended for three hours, according to the agency’s findings. He was discovered unresponsive by a kitchen manager and when local emergency medical workers were called to the nursing home, they determined that his temperature was 107 degrees. He was pronounced dead at the Leesburg Regional Medical Center of, among other things, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and hyperthermia, which is a temperature greatly above normal.

Williams said that her mother nearly died during a previous stay at the Southern Oaks Care Center last fall, when Redmond had to be hospitalized after the facility gave her an accidental overdose of morphine. Her mother’s condition at the time was so poor that she was placed in hospice care, where she was expected to die.

Though Redmond was able to recover, her family had seen enough of Southern Oaks, Williams said. Williams wanted her mother to go elsewhere, but she was unable to find a home nearby with open beds.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the facilities connected to Scheiner and Lichtschein have been among the deadliest in the state. That includes the Gulf Shore Care Center in Pinellas Park, which has reported 22 resident deaths and one staff death, and the Sands at South Beach Care Center in Miami Beach, which has reported 16 resident deaths. The Southern Oaks Care Center has reported 10 deaths.

Statewide, the number of new deaths at long-term care facilities has shot up in recent weeks, after declining for much of May and June.

Before the pandemic, the homes tied to Scheiner and Lichtschein had lower staffing levels than the state average, federal nursing home data show. The disparity was particularly wide for registered nurses, who have the most training of the caregiving staff at nursing homes and, as a result, tend to be highest paid. Residents at the homes connected to Scheiner and Lichtschein received only three-quarters the amount of daily care from registered nurses as the average at nursing homes in the state.

Advocates say those differences can be crucial for residents in need of intensive medical care.

“Every minute is an eternity when it comes to care in a nursing home,” said Brian Lee, Florida’s former long-term care ombudsman and the executive director of Families for Better care. “Every minute may be the difference between life and death.”

‘ALL SHE KNEW IS THAT SHE WAS IN PAIN’

Bydalek said she believes that seemingly endless cutbacks at the North Lake Care Center in Lake Park have put her 44-year-old daughter Jennifer Soderlund and other residents at risk.

“They’re down to bare bones on things,” Bydalek said.

Jennifer Soderlund, 44, is a resident at the North Lake Care Center in Lake Park who became infected with COVID-19 at the home. COURTESY OF LORRAINE BYDALEK

Soderlund, who has the neurological condition cerebral palsy, first tested positive for COVID-19 in early May, and was moved into a room with another infected resident, Bydalek said. Soderlund was moved again recently after testing negative for the virus twice.

Soderlund’s positive test came well after nursing homes banned visitors, and Bydalek thinks the nursing home hasn’t done enough to ensure that residents don’t get infected from staff or other residents who require treatment outside the facility.

She said that her daughter, who has physical but not cognitive, impairments, begs to be moved in their communications. Bydalek would like her daughter to be closer to her Melbourne home, but can’t find another facility with an opening for a long-term resident.

“I just want my daughter in a safer environment,” Bydalek said.

Knowles didn’t want her 61-year-old father George to be placed in the Palms Care Center in Lauderdale Lakes, either, but Palms Care was the only place equipped to take her father when he needed specialized care, including a constant supply of oxygen, after open heart surgery in early March.

Knowles’ father was disoriented and would call them in the middle of the night, panicked about his condition.

“It was really scary,” she said.

Despite repeated calls to Palms Care, she and her family found it nearly impossible to get any information about her father’s status, Knowles said. Each time they called, they would be passed from one staff member to another, none of whom could provide information.

Finally, Knowles’ cousin drove there in an effort to get more information. Employees brought Knowles’ father to a window where Knowles’ cousin could see him, and what the cousin saw was troubling: “He didn’t have oxygen on, he didn’t have a mask on,” Knowles said.

What’s more, her cousin saw numerous people in street clothes going in and out, and passing by Knowles’ father without masks or any protective gear.

Knowles said she was furious.

“You lock down those facilities for a reason, she said. “My dad still had staples down his chest.”

Her father left Palms Care in mid-March and died of a heart attack on April 3. There’s no indication that his death was related to COVID-19.

For Williams, in Pensacola, the first sight of her mother after months of lockdown was even more horrifying.

Williams had been trying desperately to learn more about the status of her mother, Sarita Redmond, at Southern Oaks after the COVID diagnosis in late April.

“There was a period of time where the phones were just busy, for days,” she said.

Her efforts included imploring the Pensacola Police Department to pay her mother a welfare visit. The department declined.

And in the ensuing weeks Redmond’s health declined rapidly.

After she learned that an investigation was being opened into her mother’s care, Williams demanded that her mother be taken to the hospital, which is where she and her family saw Redmond for the first time since she had contracted the virus.

Williams described her mother as a gorgeous woman with a beautiful heart who was devoted to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The woman they saw at the hospital that day was unrecognizable.

An image of Sarita Redmond in the final days of her life, a month after she had tested positive for COVID-19. COURTESY OF HEATHER WILLIAMS

She was emaciated and suffering from severe malnutrition. Her body was covered in bedsores and she was moaning in pain.

“She never looked like that before,” Williams said.

Her mother didn’t recognize Williams or the rest of her family.

“All she knew is that she was in pain,” Williams said.

Four days later she was dead.

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An earlier image of Sarita Redmond, who tested positive in April for COVID-19 at the Southern Oaks Care Center nursing home in Pensacola. COURTESY OF HEATHER WILLIAMS

BEN WIEDER

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Ben Wieder is a data reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.