JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Several months before a fatal fire killed 10 people in a group home, state regulators had sought to take away the operator's license, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Instead of denying licenses to Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc. because of concerns that it had failed to pay taxes and faced potential financial insolvency, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services granted a series of temporary permits that allowed its home for the mentally ill and disabled to remain open.
One of those facilities, the Anderson Guest House, was gutted by a Nov. 27 fire that killed 10 people and injured two dozen others. Investigators have not pinpointed an exact cause but have said improper wiring in an attic may have been to blame.
Shortly before its operating license expired Jan. 22, the health department issued the Anderson facility a temporary three-month permit to stay open, which later was extended several times. The department did the same for two other River of Life facilities in Joplin.
Records obtained by the AP show regulators met Jan. 17 in the office of department legal counsel Jane Drummond — now the department director — to discuss the reasons why Joplin River of Life Ministries had received only temporary permits.
In a Jan. 24 e-mail to Drummond referencing the meeting a week before, the department's long-term care program manager, Bill Toenies, said he and long-term care section director Debra Cheshier "would like to proceed with application denials" for Anderson Guest House and the two Joplin facilities.
The e-mail notes that a fourth facility run by River of Life Ministries in Carl Junction had recently gotten a two-year license renewal but that the reason for the renewal was unclear.
"Despite the problem with failure to pay payroll taxes to the IRS (by Joplin River of Life Ministries), somehow this application was approved last fall and it was given a regular license with an expiration date of 11/3/07," the health department e-mail said.
Officials at Joplin River of Life Ministries did not immediately return a telephone message Tuesday. No one answered the phone at the home of Robert and LaVerne DuPont, who own the facilities. LaVerne DuPont also serves as the ministries' executive director.
Robert DuPont has acknowledged being paid to help operate the ministries, though he was barred from operating a long-term care home because of a 2003 conviction in a Medicare fraud scheme.
The departments of health and mental health, and Attorney General Jay Nixon, are investigating Robert DuPont's role. Gov. Matt Blunt on Tuesday urged "the strongest possible licensure actions" against the ministries, as well as criminal and civil charges against DuPont if he is found to have committed fraud or violated state law.
"I am outraged at the growing evidence that Robert DuPont, a convicted felon, was illegally involved in the operations of Anderson Guest House and three other facilities," Blunt said in a statement.
The internal health department e-mail was contained in about 3,300 pages of documents provided to The Associated Press under a state open-records law request.
Department spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said Tuesday that neither Drummond nor other employees mentioned in the e-mail could comment because the department considered the e-mail protected under attorney-client privilege and had not intended to release it.
Gonder also declined to elaborate about the facilities' failure to pay federal taxes or whether that problem had been resolved. But she acknowledged the department "had some concerns related to the financial solvency" of Joplin River of Life Ministries' facilities.
"The department has the authority to deny licensure of a long-term care facility based on the financial capacity to operate the facility," Gonder said. "However, based on the information the department had, there was not enough information to deny them a license."
Temporary permits can be issued instead of regular licenses because of health and safety violations cited by inspectors or omissions on applications.
Records show that the facilities owned by the DuPonts frequently were given temporary permits before obtaining regular two-year licenses — sometimes until additional financial information could be provided and sometimes while they corrected inspection problems.