Inspection was no surprise to nursing home

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State authorities are investigating whether a city Department of Family and Support Services official tipped off a Chicago nursing home to a surprise inspection led by the state attorney general's office that was designed to protect vulnerable residents at the facility, the Tribune has learned.

When a team of law enforcement officials arrived at the Grasmere Place nursing home in Uptown for the surprise "Operation Guardian" sweep on July 22, facility administrator Celeste Jensen was waiting for them in the lobby. "What took you so long?" Jensen asked.

Under questioning by authorities with the state attorney general's office, Jensen said she had been warned of the impending sweep by a city official whose job was to safeguard elderly and disabled people in nursing homes, according to two sources who discussed the case on condition that they not be identified.

Officials expressed outrage at the alleged leaking of the sweep. Grasmere was fully staffed and bustling with painters and carpenters, said the attorney general's deputy chief of staff, Cara Smith, and state long-term care ombudsman Sally Petrone, who both took part in the raid.

When officials returned to Grasmere for an unannounced follow-up sweep on the night of Aug. 16, there was less staff and the facility was in less pristine condition, according to Smith. "What we experienced was literally night and day," she said.

Smith acknowledged the investigation but declined to comment further.

Officials and advocates for the elderly and disabled call unannounced inspections the backbone of safety enforcement, but the alleged security breach added to long-held suspicions that some nursing homes have been given advance warning of state inspections.

Of particular concern is whether nursing homes facing inspections by the state Department of Public Health have been tipped off.

"I've definitely heard of it happening. ... People could be living in squalor 364 days of the year but then be in good conditions on the one day the inspector comes," said David Vinkler, associate state director for the AARP.

Still, state law enforcement officials could not cite any effective prosecutions of alleged nursing home inspection schedule leaks during the last decade. One industry executive recently alleged to public health officials and the attorney general that a health department supervisor was providing advance copies of a monthly "master schedule" of inspections to a Chicago-area nursing home executive in return for cash, sports tickets and other gratuities.

Department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said she could not discuss what happened at Grasmere or any possible investigations of alleged leaks. But Arnold added that the department "takes any allegations very seriously. Pre-notification of a survey date carries state and federal penalties."

Grasmere administrator Jensen and the facility's owners have not been accused of any wrongdoing. They declined to comment.

Jensen, a veteran facility administrator, told authorities that she did not solicit the advance warning of the sweep and offered nothing in return. She said she considers such leaks unethical and added that they could cast a shadow of impropriety over her and the facility.

The Tribune is not naming the city official because there have been no charges or reprimands in the case. In a brief interview, the city official named by Jensen vigorously denied leaking information.

"No way would I do that. ... That would compromise my integrity," the official said.

City spokeswoman Anne Sheahan said the support services department had "not been notified of any complaint nor investigation into the conduct of our employees as it relates to the Operation Guardian program."

The attorney general began sweeping nursing homes in December in response to Tribune reports about residents being assaulted, raped and even murdered by other residents in facilities that house high numbers of felons and sex offenders. The 17 raids have led to 20 arrests of offenders with outstanding arrest warrants, Smith said.

A roughly 200-bed facility at Sheridan Road and Wilson Avenue, Grasmere specializes in treating and housing people with mental illness. The for-profit center has been operated by companies controlled by nursing home magnate Eric Rothner.

Court records examined by the Tribune show chronic illegal drug use by some Grasmere residents. At least four residents have been convicted of felony drug charges while living at the facility since 2007, and numerous others have been arrested for drug crimes, retail theft and other charges, the court records show.

Despite the alleged tipoff of the July 22 sweep, Petrone said authorities still found problems at Grasmere. Going room to room visiting residents, Petrone's ombudsmen staff found "a lot of them seemed overmedicated," she said.

In addition, Petrone said, the ombudsmen identified at least half a dozen residents — many of them younger adults — who appeared capable of living in less institutionalized settings.

"It was heartbreaking," Petrone said. "I felt some could be transitioned out to the community."

Authorities are now more closely guarding the schedule of the sweeps and are limiting the number of agencies involved, Smith said. "We have tightened the information loop," she said.

gmarx@tribune.com

dyjackson@tribune.com

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