, Muskogee, OK

January 26, 2013

State’s veterans system under scrutiny

Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the state’s veterans system, his spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.

Diane Clay, Pruitt’s spokeswoman, said the investigation would focus on the entire system, and not just a single veterans center.

“The attorney general’s office is conducting a criminal investigation and has the option of bringing the issue before the multicounty grand jury,” Clay said.

Pruitt’s investigation comes on the heels of published reports of abuse, neglect, rapes and deaths at several of the state’s veterans centers, including the scalding death of World War II veteran Jay Minter in May.

Minter died May 3, a day after he was placed in a malfunctioning whirlpool at the Claremore Veterans Center. A state medical examiner’s report said Minter had burns on more than 50 percent of his body.

Following Minter’s death, two investigations by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs substantiated charges of abuse and neglect by several members of the Claremore center’s staff, including Cindy Schnell, the center’s director of nursing. The results of those investigations were delivered to Pruitt’s office.

The ODVA’s first report, written in May, recommended that Schnell be suspended from her job. In that report, investigator Steven Pancoast also recommended the termination of Melinda Cross – the certified nurse’s aide who placed Minter into a malfunctioning whirlpool – and the suspension of two other employees at the center.

Cross was fired, and Schnell and the other employees were suspended with pay.

A second ODVA report written in November and obtained by The Journal Record this week called for Schnell to be charged with criminal negligence over Minter’s death.

In both reports, investigators questioned why Schnell allowed Cross to remain as a nurse’s aide. Investigators cited a history of medical problems and concerns by Cross’ doctor that she was unable to fully concentrate on her work and adequately care for the elderly.

“Mrs. Schnell was indifferent to an obvious and serious risk to the health and welfare of the residents, recognizing that the risk being present and deliberately chose to run that risk by doing nothing about it,” according to the ODVA’s second report. “Therefore this new evidence shows that Mrs. Cynthia Schnell should be charged with criminal negligence in the death of Mr. Minter.”

The November report also included documents that showed Schnell was aware of Cross’ medical problems for months before Minter’s death. According to the report, Cross had not been released from the care of her doctor at the time of Minter’s death.

“Schnell never removed Cross from patient care duties even though Cross was removed from work by her physician on three separate occasions in the eight months prior to the May 2 incident,” investigators wrote.

Documents from the second report also showed that Schnell felt she was a victim of a hostile work environment. Schnell, investigators wrote, did not know why she was being investigated and said she was unaware that Cross was medically impaired.

However, emails to Schnell show that she had been given information about Cross’ medical condition months beforehand.

Despite both investigations Schnell was quietly placed back into her position by ODVA Executive Director John McReynolds in December.