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Colorado State Veterans’ Home at Fitzsimons – Saying Goodbye to Don Griffis; Emerging Financial Mismanagement Scandal

June 4, 2019

At Don Griffis’ grave. Ft. Logan National Cemetery

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The picture that emerges, if accurate, is, at the very least, one of financial mismanagement on a massive scale, a system, literally out of control, either through neglect, poor book keeping, or worse, or some combination thereof.

As one Fitz employee told me recently, “When it comes to the Department of Human Services, Jared Polis inherited ‘a pile of sh..’ from his predecessor, John Hickenlooper.”

As examples of the level of managerial incompetency involved Garner Bishop – Aghababian noted that “the City of Aurora came to shut off the water for lack of payment. Xcel energy has sent shut off notices, the pharmacy and food invoices are behind.”

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1.

Yesterday (June 3, 2019), a small group of his friends and cohorts gathered at the grave of Don Griffis, who died at the age of 88 at the Colorado State Veterans Home in Aurora as 2018 turned into 2019 sometime between New Years’ Eve and New Years’ Day. A delegation of new Air Force recruits was also present.

Although Griffis lived a varied and colorful life that included a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War era, a teaching career at Metropolitan University of Denver’s Music Department, a participant in the Denver Sympathy Orchestra (among other accomplishments), virtually all of us present in the above photo knew Don specifically from the tireless work he did as resident-advocate at the Colorado State Veterans’ Home, known by its residents and employees simply as “Fitz.”

Those present commented on Griffis’ love of classical music, his tireless work on behalf of Fitz resident rights, his love of Chardonnay, a bit of which was poured at his grave site so that he might enjoy in the afterlife what he so loved before his passing. I mentioned how as his social activism intensified that the administration at the Colorado Department of Human Services actually tried to get him expelled from the facility as a result.

Another participant, ColoradoWINS state board member and activist, Jacquie Coulter, added later how, to its shame, at one point the Department of Human Services had actually organized an in-service workshop, essentially on how to deal with the ornery, persistent Don Griffis whose unending inquiries, letters, attendance at different veterans’ board meetings was getting under the skin of the Human Services’ administration.

Although Griffis’ name was not even mentioned at this workshop, it was, essentially all about him and only him. He’d become such an annoying – and well informed – gadfly. Discredited as a “narcissist,” “mentally unstable” and other unsavory labels, Griffis survived the expulsion effort and continued as a resident and with his advocacy work. He was persistent, very savvy, frankly until the day he died, unrelenting in his efforts to improve care, improve employee pay and working conditions – simply rationalize an institution that was a part of an increasingly irrational state-wide system.

It was a small group who turned up at this memorial, meant to be a modest event. The participants included a former state representative, several Fitz employees, a present and former administrator from the Colorado Department of Human Services, a member of a state veterans advisory board, a flautist from a local symphony orchestra, an organizer for ColoradoWINS – the statewide employees’ union, and a burnt out, retired Senior Lecturer of International Studies from the University of Denver, that plus a dozen or so new Air Force recruits that included one female.

Don Griffis, at “his office” at Paneras – the last meeting. December 20, 2018

2.

A week prior to Griffis’ death, I met with him at “his office” as he called the Panera’s Bakery across Colfax Ave. from the Anschutz Medical Campus where the Colorado State Veterans’ Home is housed. I had asked for the meeting, having heard from several sources of yet another crisis at “Fitz”. Rumors were flying that the facility had been negligent in paying for medical and transportation expenses that the facility was responsible for and that some forty residents – these are elderly people with health and often psychological problems, along with their families – were being pestered by collection agencies.

Was there truth to the rumors? What did Don know about them.

Turns out he knew quite a bit about this and went on that he had informed both the facility and state authorities, some members of the legislature and had, until that time, gotten no response. It turned out that he was one of the affected parties. He’d see about forwarding me some of his correspondence on the subject should I be interested (and I was).

A week later he died.

Need to add something at this point. The problems at Fitz “didn’t start yesterday.” The Colorado State Veterans’ Home at Fitzsimons has been in a permanent state of crisis going back essentially to when it was founded. It includes administrative and staff turn over, sloppy and at times, down right repressive state management both at the facility and state level, purging unjustly of those fighting for employee and union rights, administration retaliation against whistle blowers, incidents of resident neglect and a number of rather high profile cases of racial discrimination.

Much of this happened during the Hickenloooper governorship when the Department of Human Services was headed up by Reggie Bicha, recently let go. As one Fitz employee told me recently, “When it comes to the Department of Human Services, Jared Polis inherited  ‘a pile of sh…’ from his predecessor, John Hickenlooper.”

Nor is the sorry state of Fitz – and the whole state Human Services structure – “news” to anyone even vaguely familiar with the facility or the state department. What is surprising though, is how little the media has been willing to focus on the on-going crisis. Both the media and the legislature have been, frankly, spoon-fed reports, documents, emails, letters over the years. As in the title of the Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows.” Everybody knows but no one, or hardly anyone, has lifted a finger – most especially, during the Hickenlooper era, the governor’s office.

“Everybody knows the boat is leaking, Everybody knows the captain lies…”

There have been meetings with legislators who act concern but have done little, or at least little that has shown results; every major media outlet in the state has been called, ample documents have been handed over, surreptitiously or otherwise. It is not only the mainstream tv stations, the Denver Post that long have been contacted, but also more alternative, serious news’ sources, the Colorado Independent, Boulder’s flagship public radio station, KGNU as well have not touched the issue. So much so that one has to wonder…who’s been squashing this story and why?

3.

Don Griffis might be gone, but what he fought for – dignified treatment for Colorado veterans in a rationally run facility, continue, as will be noted below.

It should come as no surprise to those even vaguely familiar with the on-going three ring circus that has been Colorado’s Department of Human Service that one of the first acts of the Polis Administration has been to “clean house” of high level administrators dealing with veterans affairs” at Human Services. Of course bear in mind that this gesture comes after the governor, who had publicly come out in favor of collective bargaining for public employees, reneged on that commitment and threatened to veto HR 19-1273, forcing the statewide union to withdraw the legislation. So perhaps cleaning house at Human Services was a way of throwing public employees a few crumbs to soften the blow?

It should come as no surprise to those even vaguely familiar with the on-going three ring circus that has been Colorado’s Department of Human Service that one of the first acts of the Polis Administration has been to “clean house” of high level administrators dealing with veterans affairs” at Human Services. Of course bear in mind that this gesture comes after the governor, who had publicly come out in favor of collective bargaining for public employees, reneged on that commitment and threatened to veto HR 19-1273, forcing the statewide union to withdraw the legislation. So perhaps cleaning house at Human Services was a way of throwing public employees a few crumbs to soften the blow?

A number of high level appointees were essentially fired (ie, they were forced to re-apply for their jobs and then were not selected). Others either stepped down from higher positions, or, having a sense of which ways the political winds were blowing, thought the current moment an apt time to retire. There are several others, some argue, that should be fired, especially those in authority dealing with finance. 

In a few weeks, a major whistle-blower case against the state of Colorado, contending widespread financial mismanagement at a state facility, the Colorado State Veterans Home at Fitzsimons, will open. The defendant in the case, Valerie Garner Bishop – Aghababian, is alleging that the facility, refers to by those employed there simply as “Fitz”, “wasn’t paying vendors for providing services” with moneys it had received for that purpose from the Veterans’ Administration.

Garner Bishop – Aghababian claims to have 200 documents, pieces of evidence to support her allegation. She works in the financial office at Fitz. She also claims that when she brought the matter to the attention of facility management that rather than looking into the matter, that they resorted to retaliated against her. On social media where she made these allegations, she also noted that the state agency overseeing the facility, the Colorado State Department of Human Resources, refused to “answer or be accountable” for the facility’s mismanagement.

As examples of the level of managerial incompetency involved Garner Bishop – Aghababian noted that “the City of Aurora came to shut off the water for lack of payment. Xcel energy has sent shut off notices, the pharmacy and food invoices are behind.”

Now allegations of extensive financial management are about to break open in state court. (1)

Gotta wonder if the media will keep its head in the sand or finally give this issue the attention it deserves

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Footnote:

1. Six months ago, I interviewed Fitz resident, Gerry Muehl at his home in Aurora where he spent Saturday mornings. There were reported cases of some of those bills being sent to collection agencies; the collection agencies, aggressive and invasive, were mercilessly harassing these residents and family members – or so it was claimed.

In a later taped interview with Muehl a few weeks prior to his death, he claimed that he was receiving collection notices for bills that Fitz should have been covering. There were allegations at the time (December, 2018) that some forty Fitz residents were being similarly harassed, this according to another late resident, Don Griffis.

A portion of my exchange with Muehl is worth repeating here. I had asked him if he had reported his situation to state authorities. He responded:

Gerry Muehl: “I called the (state) Attorney General. The Attorney General told me there is nothing they could do.
I called the VA inspector’s office (investigator general) and they told me they had no authority over and nothing to do with Fitzsimons.”
Rob Prince: “When you called the State Attorney General and they replied that they couldn’t do anything to help you, did they refer you to anyone who could help, do something?”
Gerry Muehl: “Nobody. He told me to call the Veterans Representative for the state. The Veterans Representative for the state told me I had to go through the facility administrator. I told him that I had done so already and nothing had happened. And then they said “Oh well.”

The picture that emerges, if accurate, is, at the very least, one of financial mismanagement on a massive scale, a system, literally out of control, either through neglect, poor book keeping, corruption, or worse, or some combination thereof.

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Additional Reading: Miller Hudson: Polis leaves Colorado state employees at the alter

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