Deleted voicemails could have been key evidence in nursing home deaths

In this Sept. 13 photo, a woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as patients are evacuated after a loss of air conditioning due to Hurricane Irma in Hollywood, Florida. Photo: Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File

TC Palm Editorial

September 28, 2017

Over the past week, the horrific death of 11 people at a Hollywood Hills nursing home that lost power in the wake of Hurricane Irma suddenly became a story about public records.

During a 36-hour period before the first resident died, administrators from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County made four distress calls to Gov. Rick Scott’s private cell phone. Those calls would have been a vital piece of evidence in the investigation into the deaths that’s now underway.

But those voicemails no longer exist.

Scott’s office deleted all the messages. The recordings, according to a statement from Scott’s office, “were not retained because the information from each voicemail was collected by the governor’s staff and given to the proper agency for handling.”

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said state law permits “transitory” information like voicemails to be deleted after their short-term value is lost.

“The Governor receives hundreds of voicemails and once acted upon, they are deleted so the voice mail box does not become full,” Schenone said.

That didn’t sit well with state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat who represents the district that includes the nursing home. The voicemails, he said, were too “significant” to erase, and might have revealed “who did what when and why with regard to the emergency situation at this nursing home.”

Now we might never know; the investigation into the deaths cannot possibly be as complete as it might have been with those recordings.

This was a significant blunder on the part of Scott’s office.

While Farmer suggested Scott’s office might have broken the law, Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said only the courts can decide whether deleting the messages actually broke the law.

“Voicemails as a rule can be deleted the moment it’s received by the person for whom it’s intended,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of archival value as a rule.

“But this case is different.”

Scott gave out his cellphone number to nursing homes and assisted living facilities before Irma struck, saying administrators should call if there were any major problems.

Natasha Anderson, a vice president with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, told CBS4 in Miami she called the governor’s number Sept. 11 to say the nursing home needed “immediate assistance” in restoring the power to its air conditioning system. On Sept. 12, she made three more calls.

All four calls went straight to voicemail.

Scott’s office said the calls were returned by officials with the State Department of Health, and nursing home administrators were told they should call 911 if any patients were in distress. None of the messages indicated this was the case, according to Scott’s office.

Patients began to die at the nursing home between 3 and 6 a.m. Sept. 13, with some of the dead registering body temperatures as high as 109 degrees.

We don’t wish to suggest the governor is in any way responsible for those fatalities. Indeed, Scott has garnered deserved praise for his handling of Hurricane Irma and its aftermath.

But those voicemails might have bolstered Scott’s case against the nursing home. Now, until the investigation is complete, we can only take the governor at his word.

Given the gravity of this situation, it would have been nice to have had more evidence.

Petersen said Scott’s office should consider amending it’s policy of deleting all voicemails once they’ve been received and acted upon, regardless of what state rules do or don’t require.

“Every public record has retention value,” she said.

We couldn’t agree more.

And if space in the voicemail box is a concern, Petersen noted, there are ways to save them on other devices or servers. [READ MORE]

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