Top Official Ousted Over Covid-19 Deaths at Veterans Nursing Homes Remained on N.J. Payroll for Months

Top Official Ousted Over Covid-19 Deaths at Veterans Nursing Homes Remained on N.J. Payroll for Months

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ousted a top state official in mid-October as part of a reckoning over the Covid-19 crisis at the state’s nursing homes for veterans, but the official was never fired, state records show.

Rather, Maj. Gen. Jemal Beale, the former commissioner of the state’s military and veterans agency, was allowed to resign on Jan. 1 of this year despite Mr. Murphy announcing on Oct. 16 that Gen. Beale was being replaced “effective immediately,” according to personnel records and state officials.

In addition to saving face, Gen. Beale’s arrangement allowed him to fully cash in on his unused vacation days.

Meanwhile, the state fired two lower-ranking veterans home managers at the time Mr. Murphy announced the shake-up, but allowed a second more-senior manager to retire.

A spokesman for Mr. Murphy declined to comment on who made the decision to allow Gen. Beale, whom Mr. Murphy appointed, to retire rather than being fired.

Under state rules, employees resigning before the end of a calendar year give up a prorated amount of vacation days for that year, the state’s civil service agency said in a statement.

In Gen. Beale’s case, an October departure would have meant giving up around 20% of his 2020 vacation days, a cash value of up to about $3,500, based on his $175,000 salary.

Gen. Beale declined to comment on the details of his separation, saying he had been misquoted in the past. He said he prayed “all veterans are treated like the rock stars they are. They deserve the best.” For his part, he added, he is “happily enjoying retirement. God is Good!”

A spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs,

Kryn Westhoven,

provided a statement confirming that Gen. Beale departed on Jan. 1 and saying, “Beale’s resignation date encompassed the time needed to complete the administrative requirements for transition from State and Military (federal) command authority.”

More than 100 residents of New Jersey’s Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home have died of Covid-19.



Photo:

Rob Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal

The Oct. 16 leadership change came 10 days after a Wall Street Journal article detailed the agency’s mishandling of a Covid-19 outbreak at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison, N.J. The Journal’s investigation showed the state chronically underreported deaths at the facility, where more than 100 residents died of the virus. Managers ordered staff members not to wear masks, waited a full week before alerting families of their first cases and mixed sick patients with healthy ones.

That facility and a second veterans home, in Paramus, N.J., became the No. 1 and No. 2 nursing homes in the state for Covid-19 deaths.

Menlo Chief Executive

Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles

and Paramus CEO

Matthew Schottlander

were fired as part of the October transition and departed that month, according to payroll records and state officials.

Ms. Schiff-Heedles received special payments of more than $17,000 last year beyond her base salary, of which about one-fourth was cashed-out vacation time. Asked by the Journal about the special pay, Ms. Schiff-Heedles said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ms. Schiff-Heedles received about 80% of her $121,000 base salary last year before being fired in October, records show.

“What I get paid is really none of your business,” she said. Under New Jersey law, state payroll records are public and are released online each quarter.

Mr. Schottlander couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sean Van Lew, a longtime manager who supervised Ms. Schiff-Heedles and Mr. Schottlander, was allowed to retire after a 25-year career. Like Gen. Beale, he left the agency’s payroll on Jan. 1, despite being removed from his duties in October.

In a brief phone call, Mr. Van Lew referred questions about his separation to the veterans agency.

Because he wasn’t fired, state rules allowed him to take paid vacation with his remaining days rather than cashing them out at the time he was forced to resign.

“If an employee has such accrued time at the time of his or her separation, that employee can still receive the benefit of that earned but unused time even after departing state service,” the agency said in a statement provided by Mr. Westhoven.

Resigning before the start of the new year could have cost Mr. Van Lew valuable vacation time, too, because leaving before the end of the year can mean giving back a portion of that year’s vacation.

In addition to getting paid through the end of the year, on Feb. 12 Mr. Van Lew received a payout of $4,456.25 for about two weeks of remaining, unused vacation time, while Gen. Beale that same day received $3,903.68 for 51 unused hours, according to

Melinda Caliendo,

a New Jersey Treasury Department spokeswoman.

“Everyone was smart enough to be on the books until the end of the year, unless they were really fed up,” said

Tom DeShields,

the agency’s chief financial officer until 2019. “It is a nice check.”

Write to Christopher Weaver at christopher.weaver@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Source: WSJ – US News

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