CT DOC chief: Hotel program abuse could lead to criminal charges
Connecticut Department of Correction commissioner Angel Quiros has said his agency would recommend criminal charges against any employees implicated in fraud while using a pandemic hotel program created to quarantine prison workers.
“There will be a referral to outside law enforcement if we find any evidence of fraud,” Quiros told The Connecticut Mirror outside of a federal courtroom in Bridgeport during an unrelated civil trial regarding the department’s use of solitary confinement.
The commissioner’s statement comes after the CT Mirror reported details from 22 DOC investigations into potential abuse of the Temporary Emergency Lodging Program — an effort backed by $6.4 million in pandemic relief funding and designed to provide hotel rooms to corrections staff concerned about spreading COVID-19 to their families.
The internal documents, obtained through an open records request and reviewed by the CT Mirror, alleged that agency employees used the program to book hotel rooms during a wedding, to celebrate New Year’s Eve and to live full-time in the hotels with their families. Many of the instances potentially violated the program’s guidelines, potentially putting other employees and incarcerated people at risk of contracting the virus.
Even as investigators characterized the actions of DOC employees as “theft,” “willful neglect” or “misuse” of state funds, several workers named in the reports were allowed to continue their employment after being suspended from their jobs for a few days and agreeing to reimburse the state.
Quiros on Friday said he still needs to review some of the investigation files to determine if employees broke any state laws. He also said the vast majority of nearly 1,600 people who used it followed protocol.
Many of the investigations have been completed for more than a year, according to internal files, and Quiros signed off on any case that resulted in discipline.
If the DOC does recommend criminal charges against any of its employees, the matter would be referred to the state police.
Records from the DOC and state auditors’ office, some of which the CT Mirror obtained after its first story was published, show there were nearly 70 employees investigated by state officials for their use of the hotel program. Many of those cases were the result of an employee booking a room at two different participating hotels on the same days.
Some of those were the fault of the hotels. Others were the fault of the DOC employees, according to the documents.
The records highlighted cases in which DOC employees booked rooms through the program after they left the agency. They also called attention to several cases in which employees stayed at hotels while they were out on workers’ compensation leave, on unpaid leave, on military leave or family and medical leave.
In one instance, the DOC investigated Brian Cagle, a corrections officer at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, after recognizing that he booked stays at two hotels on the same day.
The agency began asking questions about those stays and learned that Cagle had shared the hotel rooms with his son and his ex-girlfriend. He also received a visit from another unnamed woman, which would defeat the purpose of using the room to quarantine.
Cagle later admitted to investigators that he ended his lease on an apartment and was using the hotel rooms as his permanent residence, which meant the state was paying for his housing costs.
“CO Cagle did not utilize the hotel room for the intended purpose of isolating himself from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19” and instead used it as a “private dwelling,” officials wrote on Oct. 21.
He agreed to reimburse the state more than $12,000 and received a five-day suspension, according to the investigation file.
Collin Provost, president of the AFSCME Local 391 Connecticut State Prison Employees Union, recently said that he didn’t have “any opinion” on the possibility that agency employees, like Cagle and several others, could be prosecuted.
“I think that we’d be remiss to not say that we were in the middle of a pandemic,” Provost said about the apparent lack of program oversight. “I don’t think that anybody knew the parameters of the program right off the bat when it first started.”
While potential abuse was going on and was subsequently investigated, thousands of people incarcerated in DOC facilities contracted the coronavirus.
More than 10,800 positive COVID tests have been identified among incarcerated people, while at least 30 people have died, according to data from the DOC. The agency has said that no one under its care was “compromised by the actions of the small number of individuals” who abused the hotel program.
But aside from mentioning temperature checks of staff, COVID-19 testing of staff and incarcerated people and the establishment of a medical isolation unit for those who contracted the often asymptomatic virus, the DOC did not make clear how it knows the employees’ actions didn’t spread the virus.