Family Of COVID-19 Victim Files Wrongful Death Claim (KPBS Roundtable)
A Southern California family files a wrongful death claim after an inmate at San Diego County’s Donovan State Prison died from COVID-19, conflict of interest investigations shake up operations for Volunteers of America and the San Diego Housing Commission, and a conversation on the role of statues and public building names in the ongoing social justice movement.
Speaker 1: 00:01 When a local prison inmate died of COVID-19, his family says they were left in the dark by the system. Now they’re seeking justice conflicts of interest and claims of fraud, the controversy surrounding two local organizations that help San Diego’s most vulnerable and the push to reevaluate which historical figures to celebrate in our shared public spaces. I’m Claire triglyceride and the KPBS round table starts now.
Speaker 2: 00:38 [inaudible]
Speaker 1: 00:42 Hello. Welcome to our discussion of the week’s top stories. I’m Claire Traeger, sir, joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table. Are I new source investigative reporter, Jill Castellano, Scott Lewis, the CEO and editor in chief for voices, San Diego and KPBS race and equity reporter, Christina Kim. It might feel like the pandemic is ending and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. San Diego is getting closer to its vaccination goals. Restaurants are filling up and you don’t have to wear your mask quite as often, but for nearly 3,800 families locally, who lost a loved one to COVID-19, there will be a lasting hole left behind and more than a dozen of those deaths happened at Donovan state prison in OTI Mesa. Right now the family of one of those inmates is filing a wrongful death claim against the state. Jill Castellano from I new source is covering the story and hello, Jill. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Sure. So we’ll dive into the details of this particular case in a moment, but first set the scene inside these prisons, be it Donovan or another prison. What are the conditions like and how did those conditions impact the spread of a virus?
Speaker 3: 02:01 People think of prisons as really closed off and isolated institutions, but in fact, they’re very porous. So thousands of people come in inside and outside of correctional facilities every single day, whether that’s staff members or visitors or volunteers, or even the inmates who might need to be transferred or go to a medical appointment or a court hearing. So they’re very fluid institutions and it’s quite easy for a virus to get in. Once it’s inside the facility, it’s really cramped quarters in there. Donovan has over 3,500 individuals inside its institution. That’s a lot of people and they’re all living very close together. So they’re not built to prevent the spread of a virus that’s airborne and very infectious,
Speaker 1: 02:50 Right? I mean, it’s kind of, in some ways, you know, the worst possible situation where people are coming in and out and it’s cramped quarters where you can see how easily it would spread. And so that leads us to the case of Leon Martinez. What led up to his death at Donovan? Leon
Speaker 3: 03:10 Martinez was actually the youngest of the 18 individuals to die from COVID who were incarcerated at Donovan. He was only 48 years old in his case, his family says about around the end of December, he fell out of touch and he was in communication almost every single day. So this was very unusual. They got really worried and they didn’t hear from him medical records show. He was diagnosed, tested positive for COVID on January 5th. And by January 7th, he was transported to the hospital Alvarado hospital in east county, and then immediately sent an admitted into the ICU. That’s how serious the case was. He continued to deteriorate, unfortunately, over the next few weeks and died on January 25th.
Speaker 1: 03:55 And you and I knew source reporter, Mary Plummer, both worked on this story and talked with, uh, Martinez his family. They weren’t really updated when he did get sick and had trouble even tracking down basic information. And I know you reported his widow described it as torture. So what sort of hoops did she have to jump through?
Speaker 3: 04:16 A lot of hoops of Angelina Garcia did everything that she thought she could to try to get information and feels like she still didn’t get what she needed. She called more than eight people at the prison to try to understand why her husband was out of touch. Eventually she heard he had been transported to the hospital with the case of COVID. They wouldn’t even say where he had been transported. So she started calling every hospital in San Diego county until eventually she got a tip that he might be at Alvarado hospital. When she called them, she was so desperate and they eventually reluctantly acknowledged that he was there. And the story just continues on with her pushing and pushing, to get information with, with very little coming out from the end of the hospital or the prison.
Speaker 1: 05:01 And you found out there were other incidents where other inmates had died also with little communication to the families, right?
Speaker 3: 05:08 Yes. We’ve been in touch with five families of incarcerated people who died from COVID at Donovan prison. Those five families all said they weren’t told that their loved one was even sick until after they died. The prison says this can happen if there’s an issue with the paperwork being filled out correctly. But these families, most of them said they were really outraged that they weren’t told earlier. And given a chance to say goodbye.
Speaker 1: 05:36 There was a recent report from Cal matters that found 57% of California prison employees are refusing a free COVID vaccines. Is this a trend that we’re seeing at Donovan and other local prisons?
Speaker 3: 05:52 Yes. Those numbers are just spot on for Donovan in particular and across the whole prison system. In fact, the numbers are much higher. The vaccination numbers among the incarcerated population over 70% of them have been vaccinated, but less so among the employees, themselves advocates and lawyers have said they should make this mandatory for prison employees to be vaccinated in order to continue working. It’s something we’ve seen in other industries. We have yet to see that across the California prison system. And in fact, I saw a report today that said, now the corrections department is offering gift cards and money as incentives to people to try to get them vaccinated.
Speaker 1: 06:34 Well, yeah, that seems to be something that’s happening more and more as, as offices are, are opening up. But this is, you know, prison employees have been working in person the entire time. So it seems like something they they’ve already been tackling. And so then tell us, what’s next in this process for the Martinez family and what did they eventually want from the state
Speaker 3: 06:57 For the Martinez family now, as a waiting period, the state has about six months to review the family’s claim. And in almost every single case it’s denied because the state wants to fight that case in court. So we can expect that they’ll receive a denial. And after that, they’re going to be able to file an official lawsuit against the state for Martinez death. They’ve made it clear to me. They’re not looking for money. What they’re looking for is answers and accountability.
Speaker 1: 07:25 And I imagine this is something you will continue to follow as, as more things unfold. So we appreciate your reporting on this. I’ve been speaking with investigative reporter, Jill Castellano from I new source. And thank you, Jill. Thanks so much to local organizations that work to help. Some of our most vulnerable are dealing with controversies that now threatened their missions for the San Diego housing commission. The purchase of a mission valley hotel to place houseless residents is at the center of a conflict of interest that could be a criminal violation. And then there’s also volunteers of America, which had to be taken over by the national organization due to allegations of local fraud and mismanagement voice of San Diego is covering both of these stories and CEO. Scott Lewis is here to explain why you should have these on your radar. So welcome Scott. Hey, so let’s start in mission valley. Andrew Keats reported on the San Diego housing commission and its dealings with a real estate broker named Jim Neal. So what was his role in helping the commission buy a hotel that would be repurposed for housing for the homeless? Well, you
Speaker 4: 08:40 Know, obviously during the height of the pandemic, they kind of along with a lot of agencies around the state and the state government decided that hotels, many of which were in distress, offered a really good opportunity to get some permanent housing established for, and they wanted to get some of those in their portfolio. And so they got money, they pulled together money and they went out looking for it and they hired Jim Neil to do that. He’s a, a broker and he’d gotten a contract to do that. Uh, but before he actually negotiated the sale of one of the hotels, uh, residents in, in mission valley and residents in by the way were kind of perfect for this because they have little kitchenettes, you can easily convert them into permanent housing. And, uh, he, before he actually inked the deal, though, he bought 40,000 shares in a trust that owned the building that he got the housing commission to, uh, purchase, uh, they paid about $349,000 per unit. You know, they say, if you compare that to apartments and housing elsewhere, that’s a pretty good deal. Um, but for hotels, that was an expensive deal. And so the question is, you know, can they really be confident about the deal or not?
Speaker 1: 09:56 Right. And I know Andrew, uh, report in, in history, the da wouldn’t comment on whether there is a criminal investigation, which is kind of standard for how they handle that part of the public interest in this story is that these hotel purchases like this one in mission valley are part of the state’s overall COVID-19 strategy when it comes to, uh, dealing with, with people without homes. Is, is that right?
Speaker 4: 10:22 Yeah. There was a big push across the state. And you remember former mayor, Kevin Faulconer was one of the first to really jump on it as well. This idea that hotels were both empty and presented a really great opportunity to get people into permanent housing. You know, one of the biggest problems is people say like we need permanent housing, but building that takes years takes upward of three, four or $500,000 per unit to build. And so this, these hotels offered a really interesting opportunity because a lot of them were having financial troubles of their own. A lot of them were on the market. And so we have thousands of people on the street. We have money available to support them and, you know, just building permanent housing that takes a long time finding the right spots, getting through all the approvals and then building it is, is takes such a long time to these hotels, offer this just really great opportunity to get some stuff done right away.
Speaker 4: 11:15 And they did, they jumped on at least two hotels to get that in that program. It’s just a question of, you know, now whether they got the best deal possible, uh, whether they, uh, whether they got a worse deal, precisely because of this person’s financial stake that he put into this, or, um, you know, whether they’re been able to preserve the deal going forward. And that seemed to be the thing that they were most worried about when the story broke is just assuring people that the deal itself was okay. Uh, the housing commission staff put out a memo saying just to be clear, this was a great deal. There’s no question in the voice San Diego story, that this was a bad deal. Uh, and so you don’t worry about it as a good deal. The only issue the sole issue is that this guy had this conflict of interest. We’re going to deal with that. And a lot of the housing, uh, or at least two members of the housing commission board itself said, Hey, now we don’t actually agree with that statement. We want to, we want to have a broader look at whether something really bad happened here.
Speaker 1: 12:10 Right. And then I know you did a up story that, um, some commissioners said, uh, we didn’t, you didn’t check with us before you sent out the statement. We’re, we’re not on board with that. Yeah,
Speaker 4: 12:21 It does, uh, uh, appear to be devolving into a pretty serious crisis for the housing commission between it staff and the commissioners that oversee.
Speaker 1: 12:30 So let’s shift to another, uh, watchdog story from voices, San Diego involving volunteers for America. And for those who are not familiar, can you tell us what does this organization do?
Speaker 4: 12:42 Yeah, it provides a lot of, uh, support. They, they provided a lot of the beds for addiction and recovery and behavioral health services for the county, for the county of San Diego. And in particular, they had some deals in grants that they got from the veterans affairs association to provide a lot of these services for veterans. They, um, provide a lot of services along this sort of, you know, frontline of, of behavioral health and, and, and homeless services. So, you know, it’s a very important service, especially now with everything happening.
Speaker 1: 13:16 And so will Hansberry another voice voices, San reporter, um, reported this week that the local volunteers for America, CEO and board are out and the national organization has taken over operations for now. That’s a really big step. So why was it needed? Well,
Speaker 4: 13:34 They got a letter last week from the veterans, uh, uh, the department of veteran affairs that said, we read the voice of San Diego’s story. And, and that story was a story we did a couple of weeks ago about just some really serious allegations, uh, about, uh, self-dealing. There was for instance, uh, a financial clerk who accused other employees of creating companies that they were then using to bill, uh, volunteers of America for all these, uh, fitness equipment and trash bags and foam cleanser and copy paper, all those things, you know, with really inflated prices. And when they brought the issue to the, the leadership of the organization, they were actually fired. So after the VA read our story, they went back to their own audit of the organization from February and discovered immediately, uh, $87,000 in questionable funds that they had, that they had paid out, uh, for some of these, what they felt like were potentially fraudulent organizations and, and it, it got worse.
Speaker 4: 14:40 So they said, look, if, if we keep looking at this, uh, I think, uh, you know, the, the letter they sent said, we were probably gonna find, uh, exponentially more fraudulent activity. And so the story the county itself did, uh, did an audit. You know, some of these, sometimes there’s all these things happening, there’s audits and different stuff, but when journalism comes in and puts it all together and then talks to people who actually uncovered some of this stuff, uh, it can have an effect that all that other stuff doesn’t really have until it’s put together. And that’s what seems to be really happening here. And so yet we broke the story that the CEO has decided to abruptly retire and that the entire board has been removed. Uh, and the national organization of volunteers for America is, is coming in to kind of put it into words
Speaker 1: 15:30 And whistleblowers got this going. What response did they get when the issues were raised internally?
Speaker 4: 15:37 Well, I think it’s fair to say resistance. Uh, they, they’d worked at the nonprofit, these two individuals for, um, you know, nine and 15 years each. And they were just let go, the agency didn’t appear to be interested or, or, uh, or was otherwise motivated to, uh, move them along and, and, um, keep this from getting wider attention. Some of them signed agreements to not talk about it. And then, you know, there was this, this county audit that uncovered a lot of what, um, at least some questionable billing practices and such. So then there was some lawsuits that didn’t really take that. We’re also trying to get some of this out and it, again, it took somebody kind of putting it all together and telling the story for, for, for people to really wake up. And so the, yeah, the impacts from this, it’s rare that you see the impacts go this fast, you know, where the board and the VA and everybody start acting, because it’s just that obvious that something really bad was going on.
Speaker 1: 16:35 Yeah. And so these are two big watchdog stories, and people can read more about both of email@example.com, and also hear about them on the voice of San Diego podcast. And Scott Lewis is the CEO and editor in chief. So Scott, thank you so much for being
Speaker 4: 16:53 Claire. Thank you so much for highlighting this and, and doing your own investigative work. And it’s a great service and everybody should support
Speaker 1: 16:59 It this week marked one year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an event that pushed our society into new conversations, beyond the issue of police violence. Some of that is seen in an ongoing critical look at how systemic racism extends to our shared spaces and landmarks. We have two examples this week in San Diego, where an elementary school in Claremont is being renamed and a controversial statute is gone for good here for a deeper discussion is KPBS race and equity reporter. Christina Kim. Hello, Christina. Hey Claire. So one well-known issue is the Christopher Columbus statue in Chula Vista. It was removed last summer and now city leaders say it won’t return. So why was this decision made?
Speaker 5: 17:52 Right? So this decision was long in the making last year, the city of Chula Vista removed the Christopher Columbus statue ahead of a protest that was scheduled to take place to demand that the statute be taken down because it was seen as an affront and harmful to native communities who see this statue, celebrating someone that led to the colonization of the Americas. And it was long been heralded as the discover of the Americas there in erasing the native communities that already exist here.
Speaker 1: 18:19 Okay. And so you talked with people involved with the removal of the statue. So how are they reacting to this decision?
Speaker 5: 18:27 Yeah, I spoke with grace Sardina, she’s the vice president of the sons and daughters of Italy. And she told me she applauds the decision because she doesn’t think that anything that causes suffering should be put in public spaces, but she does want to work to keep the statue on private property. And the sons and daughters of Italy have asked that they be given the, the statue in order to keep it. I also spoke to be a trees, the Maura of the cleanup Cohan, um, which is a coalition that pushed for the monuments removal. She says, she’s really happy with what decision the city council took, because she says that in order to heal, we have to talk about these moments in our history and really address them to move forward. She says, this isn’t about cancel culture or canceling culture. It’s about telling the truth, which again, can get kind of hairy because when it comes to cultural heritage, people’s perspectives really inform what the truth means to them.
Speaker 1: 19:18 Right? And so, as you say, statues of Columbus and Confederate leaders and others were targeted and some were torn down in the weeks following the George Floyd killing. So why do you think the social justice movement is drawn to these symbols?
Speaker 5: 19:32 It’s because of what these statues and monuments represent in terms of power and whose stories and lives get to count. So if you’re a black person whose family was brought to the United States as a slaves, and you walk by a Confederate general statute that literally commemorate someone that fought to essentially keep slavery intact, what does that say about the place that you live in? What does it value, who is being valued? So when we see movements for racial justice, what we’re seeing is a protest against the status quo of racial hierarchies of disparate treatment by police and the law. And these types of monuments can come to represent those systems. And in that way, there a real tangible way of immediately quote unquote, tackling systemic racism, even if it’s only symbolic. And so I think it’s important to also reframe your question and remember, it’s not just people who are involved in social justice movements, who are drawn to these symbols and monuments, the Charlottesville 2017 unite, the right protest that ended in the death of a woman was actually because the city was taking down a Robert E. Lee statue.
Speaker 1: 20:31 Yeah. And you know, you, you make a, a good point about, it’s not just that the activist side that, that people see in relation to these, to these monuments. I also wanted to ask you Charles Lindbergh key and a lesser known figure medical Albert Schweitzer are the names of an elementary school in Claremont. What is it about these men that made San Diego unified revisit the school’s naming,
Speaker 5: 20:59 Right. So a little quick backstory. So Charles Lindbergh, we all know him for his role in aviation. He was the first pilot, uh, to fly non non-stop flight across the Atlantic. But a lot less people know that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He accepted an award from Hitler in the thirties, and also made several antisemitic comments because he didn’t want to be involved in world war two, as for Dr. Albert Schweitzer, as you noted, he was a medical missionary that actually worked in Africa and what is now Gabon in central Africa, but he held very paternalistic and racist view towards his patients saying that, you know, Africans were his quote unquote junior brothers and calling them lazy. So because of this, because of these men’s views, the school along with parents have been looking to change the names since 2016.
Speaker 1: 21:46 And most of the students at what will now be called Claremont canyons elementary are people of color. Is that a key reason why this is being done? Or should school districts take a more systemic approach to reviewing the names of all of its schools, regardless of a school’s demographics,
Speaker 5: 22:05 Right, Claire, I mean, you bring up a good point. Claremont canyon, a Montreal is a really diverse school. And so I think that played a role into why parents and the school were really sensitive to the history of the men. The school was named after school principal, Victoria Peterson. You know, she wrote a letter to the San Diego school unified school board and the superintendent. And what she said was that the lives and the remarks of these men were in direct conflict with the school’s values. And you know, her job as a principal is to make a school that’s welcoming for all. But to your point, there really hasn’t been a systemic approach to renaming schools or for that matter, taking into consideration the demographics of that school. But what we have seen is students in San Diego, engaging with history and pushing for these changes themselves. For instance, earlier this year, students at the Junipero Serra high school fought to change the school’s name to canyon Hills high school citing Sarah’s role in the California mission system that subjugated native people. And they also work to change their mascot, which had formerly been a conquistador. Um, similarly students in Pacific beach, they worked and really asked for a name change. So they asked for a joint community field to be renamed the Fannie and William made joint use field. And that was to honor Pacific beach, middle school’s first black teacher.
Speaker 1: 23:19 We’ve also seen resistance to this critical examination of history and how it shapes our culture. Several states are targeting what’s called critical race theory and the award-winning New York times 16, 19 project that looks at the lasting impacts of slavery. So what does that say about the challenges ahead for the social justice movement?
Speaker 5: 23:41 Right. Well, I think the current criticism of critical race theory and Nicole Jones, 69 project really show us how much history is about power and maintaining certain hierarchies in place, but also how personally attached people feel to the stories and myths of this country. For some it’s really threatening to have to consider 16, 19 as a starting place in history because it centers the crucial role black Americans had and continue to have in making this country. And I think that there’s something happening here that is really more about how certain words like critical race theory have almost been weaponized and taken out of context. So the argument we’re having, you know, in these school districts, or even, you know, in political punditry, it’s not even about critical race theory, it’s about something else. So when we see states like Montana and Tennessee banning schools from teaching critical race theory, it stopping things like understanding privilege or interrogating systems and really getting out why inequalities exist.
Speaker 5: 24:37 And I’m not so sure if that’s what people know what critical race theory is doing. And so to your question about what challenges do these pushbacks have on social justice movements? I think that the challenges that we as a country will move away from critically engaging in our histories and really unpacking why and how racial and economic inequalities exist. And then that way we won’t progress. But honestly, I think what we’re seeing, isn’t just about looking at it through a social justice lens. It’s really a reflection of where we are in this country. We are deeply divided. And the reality is, is that we don’t have a single shared truth anymore. And that’s why these debates about monuments and about names are so contentious.
Speaker 1: 25:19 All right. Well, a lot to, to follow. And I think there there’ll be more stories to come. I’ve been speaking with Christina Kim, who’s the race and equity reporter for KPBS. Thank you, Christina.
Speaker 5: 25:32 Thank you, Claire. That
Speaker 1: 25:34 Wraps up this week’s edition of the KPBS round table. I’d like to thank my guests, Jill. Castellano from I new source Scott Lewis from voice of San Diego and Christina Kim from KPBS news. If you missed any part of our show, you can listen anytime on the KPBS round table podcast. I’m Claire, sir. Thanks for listening and join us next week on the round table.