Op-Ed: If People Went to Jail for “Bridgegate,” Who Will Be Held Accountable for the Deaths of 200 NJ Veterans?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a damning report that said that New Jersey’s state-run nursing homes for veterans violated residents’ constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate care and safety in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The DOJ’s investigation also reported that the state still has not brought either facility into compliance with current medical standards of care.

The Murphy administration wants this news to fade away. But we can’t allow that to happen until these questions are answered: Who will be held accountable for the deaths of more than 200 veterans? And who will be held accountable for failing to fix all that was wrong in these facilities?

It’s painfully clear that leadership failures occurred across the board — within the Murphy administration, in the state legislature and in the facilities themselves. People at all three levels need to be held accountable.

It was the Murphy administration that directed the veterans’ homes not to turn away Covid-positive patients in April 2020. Those patients were sent directly into veterans’ homes in Paramus and Menlo Park, where the virus would spread like wildfire and claimed at least 200 veterans’ lives. Deaths were likely undercounted due to poor clinical procedures, per the report.  It was the Murphy administration that ordered criminals released from prisons to protect them from getting Covid-19, but senselessly exposed hundreds of our veterans to the virus.

Compounding the problem with the veterans’ homes, Senator Vin Gopal, chairman of the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, refused to investigate the state’s failings. When Senator Nia Gil (D-Essex) demanded lawmakers vote in favor of investigating the deaths with subpoena power, Gopal and his colleagues shut her down. Then a bipartisan group of Senators proposed legislation to upgrade the homes to prevent further deaths and tragedy. Again, Gopal refused, obviously in deference to the Murphy administration.

Finally, the report outlines numerous operational and safety failures at both veterans’ homes. Later, when the DOJ came back to check to see if the facilities had made any changes, DOJ investigators reported that staff members were instructed not to cooperate with their questioning.

If not for this forced DOJ investigation, none of these findings would have been made public. And now, no one in Trenton is accepting responsibility.

Last week, Murphy described the DOJ report as “deeply disturbing.” But he accepted no responsibility.

Gopal issued a statement blaming the Murphy administration, saying that during the time in question, the legislature was ignored. That cowardly comment comes from the elected official who was vested with the responsibility to protect our veterans. Instead, Gopal protected Murphy. And like Murphy, Gopal has not accepted any responsibility.

The veterans who died in these nursing homes served our country in wars and conflicts all around the world. And yet, they died right here at home – not in battle with a foreign enemy, but something much worse. They died or were placed in harm’s way because of politicians unable to lead, and cowards unwilling to accept responsibility. Is there any greater disrespect that this state can demonstrate to the families of those who died?

In 2021, the state agreed to pay $53 million in a settlement that acknowledged it was negligent and contributed to more than 100 of these deaths. But that’s just not sufficient in this case. People in leadership roles need to be held accountable.

Several years ago, Christie administration officials went to jail for their roles in the  “Bridgegate” debacle. A disgraceful situation for sure, but no one died in that case.

In this situation, however, more than 200 veterans are gone. So, who is accountable for the actions that contributed to the deaths of these veterans? And who is accountable for failing to keep veterans safe, in line with their constitutional rights, at these facilities?

The families of these veterans – and the entire veterans’ community – deserve more than hollow promises from cowards in Trenton who are unwilling to accept responsibility. These families deserve justice beyond financial settlements. As military leaders know, leaders responsible for others own their mistakes. But here, you see, we’re not dealing with leaders; we’re dealing with politicians who want to deflect attention and move on. We cannot allow that to happen. We must ensure that those responsible on all three levels are held accountable. That’s what the people expect from their public officials. And that’s what all veterans deserve.

About Steve Dnistrian Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner 1 Article
Steve Dnistrian is a first-time candidate running for the NJ State Senate in the 11th Legislative District in Monmouth County, where Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner are the current assemblywomen.