JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A federal felon barred from running long-term care facilities acknowledged Wednesday that he nonetheless has been paid to help operate several group homes for the mentally ill, including one recently destroyed in a fatal fire.
Robert Dupont said his continued involvement with the Anderson Guest House and other group homes should have been obvious to the state inspectors with whom he interacted. But officials in the state health and mental health departments insisted Wednesday they had no idea Dupont had any operational role when they granted licenses to his facilities.
Nine of the 32 residents and one of two staff members were killed in a Nov. 27 fire at the Anderson Guest House. The land and building are owned by Dupont, while the business is owned by Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc., which Dupont helped create in 2002.
The next year, Dupont was convicted in a federal Medicare fraud scheme and removed himself as an officer of Joplin River of Life Ministries.
State law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony involving a health care facility from being an "operator" or "principal" in a long-term care facility. Dupont also is barred by federal law from participating in the Medicare or Medicaid health care programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.
Dupont's wife, Laverne, now serves as executive director of Joplin River or Life Ministries.
"I assist with the total operations," Dupont, 62, of Joplin, said in a telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. Dupont said he is paid to help operate Joplin River of Life Ministries, though he doesn't hold any particular title.
"I have operated these facilities all over the state for 20 years," Dupont added. "I think it's legitimate that I would be there assisting in the operation of these facilities, and I've never been questioned by any of the agencies on what my role was."
But his role is being questioned now.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services, the Department of Mental Health and Attorney General Jay Nixon all are investigating Dupont's involvement with the group homes. The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also could open an investigation, though it will neither confirm nor deny doing so.
If it's determined Dupont was an operator of the facilities, they could lose their licenses and be forced to return Medicaid payments and potentially face civil fines.
Health department spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said Dupont was not listed "as being in any way involved in the operation of any facilities" in the agency's licensing documents.
"We had no evidence to suggest that Mr. Dupont was actively involved in operating the Anderson Guest House or any other facility," said Gonder, adding that Dupont's new public statements are being treated as evidence in the investigation.
Mental health department spokesman Bob Bax similarly said Dupont was not listed as either an employee or principal in any licensing documents since 2002. Dupont's fraud conviction bars him from having contact with anyone receiving services through the mental health department, Bax said.
Dupont said it's nonsense for state officials to claim they had no knowledge of his renewed involvement with Joplin River of Life Ministries after he was released from prison.
"I didn't run and hide in the other room when I seen an inspector coming," Dupont said. "In fact, I have been quite involved with some of the inspections that have gone on."
Records provided Wednesday to the AP by the state Department of Social Services, which oversees Missouri's Medicaid program, show Joplin River of Life Ministries was paid $626,823 over the past three years by Medicaid to provide personal care services to residents at four southwest Missouri facilities — two in Joplin and one each in Anderson and Carl Junction.
The Anderson facility was the leading Medicaid recipient — getting $220,815 from 2004 until roughly the time it burned down.
Dupont said the direct Medicaid payments amount to 15 percent to 20 percent of the income for Joplin River of Life Ministries. But it also receives additional Medicaid money indirectly, because some residents receive Medicaid grants that they use to help pay for their room and board, he said.
Dupont said he was frustrated that the fire has focused attention on his troubles instead of how he has tried to care for the mentally ill who are misunderstood and discriminated against.
"All of the sudden a tragedy happens and it's all because there was this bad felon down there doing it — it's ridiculous," Dupont said. "They want to make me look like I'm the dog — that's not a true statement, I'm not."
No one has been charged with a crime in the Anderson fire, which investigators say may have been started by faulty wiring. An exact cause may never be known, they say, because all evidence was likely lost in the blaze. Dupont has expressed skepticism that electrical wiring was to blame, saying it's more likely that a minor mattress fire two days earlier at the facility left smoldering embers in the home's attic.
Dupont was named Tuesday as a defendant in the first civil lawsuit stemming from the fire. The parents and wife of 19-year-old staff member Glen Taff filed a wrongful death lawsuit in McDonald County court, alleging that Dupont and River of Life Ministries failed to fix faulty wiring and install a sprinkler system.