Editor’s Note: This article is part of CT Mirror’s Spanish-language news coverage developed in partnership with Identidad Latina Multimedia.
A special program designed to shelter corrections officers in hotels during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, using millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding, was repeatedly abused by prison workers, according to an ongoing state investigation.
The Department of Correction set up the Temporary Emergency Lodging Program in the early months of the pandemic to allow corrections officers to book a stay at a hotel if they were concerned about picking up the coronavirus at a state prison and bringing it back to their family members.
The initiative was financed with $6.4 million in federal relief funding, according to a recently released audit.
Internal investigations by state auditors and the DOC reviewed by the CT Mirror allege that corrections 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.
Others booked rooms in multiple hotels on the same days, and at least one corrections officer used the program while he was on military leave.
All of those actions were violations under the rules that were set up for the emergency lodging program, but state auditors found that the state Department of Correction did not have the proper controls in place to ensure state employees didn’t abuse the system in real time.
The request forms that the agency created for corrections officers were not always filled out in advance of the hotel stays, the auditors said. And state officials did not set a limit on the number of days a state employee could stay at the hotels, which were located throughout Connecticut.
The investigations revealed that some of the DOC employees spent as long as five or six months living in hotels using the federal funds. The DOC was paying set rates of around $70 per day for rooms in hotels in Montville, Southington and Windsor, among other places, according to bills included as part of the investigations.
“The lack of internal controls increased the risk of program misuse or abuse,” state auditors noted. “Without the limitation of the number of days for a hotel stay, employees could stay at the hotel for longer than necessary. Without the employees’ verification and certification of their hotel stays, incorrect or double billing could occur without detection.”
DOC officials told the CT Mirror that the agency has now identified at least $144,000 in questionable costs related to the program.
That includes at least 35 cases of potential misuse, each of which resulted in the agency opening an internal investigation.
The CT Mirror reviewed 22 of those internal investigative reports, which were obtained through a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
DOC officials said the internal investigations into misuse of funds represented only a small part of the $6.4 million that was allocated for the emergency lodging program.
“The overwhelming majority of the Department of Correction staff members utilized the program as it was intended,” the agency said in a written response to questions from the CT Mirror, “working on the front lines of the agency’s facilities, in congregate settings, then staying in hotel rooms, isolated from their loved ones, in order to protect them.”
Department officials did not address how abuse of the program might have affected people behind bars.
At least 30 incarcerated people in Connecticut died from COVID-19 in the past three years, according to the DOC. The agency cited its broad regulations for combatting the spread of COVID in a written statement to the CT Mirror and said no one under its care was “compromised by the actions of the small number of individuals” who abused the hotel program.
The agency did not explain how it came to that conclusion.
Hotel complained about dogs in rooms
But the cases in question highlight examples in which DOC employees allegedly used the program for their personal benefit.
Take the case of Brian Cagle, a corrections officer at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. DOC officials began looking into Cagle’s use of the program after the agency recognized that he booked stays at two hotels on the same day.
The agency began to ask questions about those stays and learned that Cagle had shared the hotel rooms with his son and his ex-girlfriend and was visited in the hotel by another unnamed woman, which would defeat the purpose of using the room to quarantine.
Cagle later admitted to the DOC 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 admitted he let his lease expire while continuing to stay at the hotel utilizing the room as his personal dwelling,” the investigators noted.
A similar situation also played out with Miguel Ortiz, a corrections officer who works at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in Suffield, according to state records.
DOC officials were notified about his use of the program when hotel staff questioned the agency about whether Ortiz was allowed to have his wife, children and dogs stay with him.
The manager at the Hyatt House in Windsor complained to DOC officials that the hotel had spent several hundred dollars in pet cleaning fees over the course of six months in order to clean up after Ortiz’s pets.
During an interview with DOC investigators, Ortiz admitted his entire family was living at the hotel full-time. He also claimed that he had never heard of the TELP program or filled out any forms to get the state to reimburse the costs.
“I’m the provider, and they’re gonna go where I go,” Ortiz said of his family. “So that’s the reason why they were with me at the hotel and the reason why I was in the hotel.”
Other employees who were flagged by the DOC took advantage of the programs in other ways, investigators wrote.
Roberto Oliveras, an officer at the Osborn Correctional Institution, was cited by DOC investigators for booking duplicate stays at hotels in Windsor, Rocky Hill, Glastonbury and the Hyatt Place Mohegan Sun in Uncasville.
The investigators noted that Oliveras never submitted any of the necessary request forms for any of his hotel stays. He also admitted that he stayed at the Uncasville hotel infrequently despite the state paying for that room from Nov. 2020 to April 2021.
Oliveras also admitted to investigators that he booked the room at the Rocky Hill location specifically for New Year’s Eve.
He was not the only corrections officer to use the program for a special event, according to the internal reports.
Two other corrections officers allegedly misused the program by having the state pick up the tab for hotel rooms they booked to attend a wedding.
DOC investigators cited Duwyane Blocker and David Crenshaw, two officers who work at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, for allegedly booking hotel stays in conjunction with a wedding they were both participating in.
Both Blocker and Crenshaw reportedly reserved hotel stays at the Hilton Garden Inn in Milford for several nights. And both of them had family members who stayed with them as part of those visits, according to the investigative reports.
Yet when investigators questioned the two men, they both said they did not make the reservation in conjunction with the wedding. And they argued that they stayed at the hotel in order to avoid contact with family members who may have contracted the virus.
The state investigators, however, talked to the staff at the Milford hotel. The front desk clerk at the hotel said that both Blocker and Crenshaw were in the hotel as wedding guests.
In Crenshaw’s case, the hotel staff pointed out that a room was initially booked under his name as part of the wedding reservations, but they said that reservation was later cancelled so that his stay could be charged to the emergency lodging program.
A DOC investigator specifically asked Blocker why he would attend a wedding while the state was paying for him to be quarantined away from his family.
“Once I get the room, whatever I do, pretty much, my understanding, is my business,” Blocker told the investigator.
Several of the investigators, in cases reviewed by the CT Mirror, characterized the actions of DOC employees as “theft,” “willful neglect” or “misuse” of state funds.
Yet many of the people who were cited in those reports were allowed to continue their employment with the state after being suspended from their jobs for a few days.
Cagle, who used a hotel room as his personal residence, was suspended for five days and he signed an agreement with the state that requires him to repay $12,224.
The same is true for Ortiz, the corrections officer whose pets sullied the hotel room at the Hyatt House in Windsor. He was suspended from work for five days and was required to repay $17,400 for the more than six months he and his family stayed at the hotel.
Oliveras, who admitted to booking a hotel stay on New Year’s Eve, received the same five-day suspension and agreed to reimburse the state $10,703 for the four hotels where he made reservations.
And Crenshaw and Blocker, the two wedding guests, were suspended for two days, despite investigators determining that they were “less than truthful” during their interviews.
It’s unclear if DOC officials referred any of the cases to law enforcement officials.
Collin Provost, president of the AFSCME Local 391 Connecticut State Prison Employees Union, declined to provide details about the union’s role in the ongoing DOC investigation.
“I think that we’d be remiss to not say that we were in the middle of a pandemic,” Provost said about the lack of program oversight. “I don’t think that anybody knew the parameters of the program right off the bat when it first started.”
Stories about abuse of federal pandemic funds are not uncommon. For example, a former Connecticut state legislator, Michael DiMassa, has pleaded guilty to federal charges for misappropriating more than $1 million in federal funds from the city of West Haven.
As the federal government made available billions of dollars in aid for people directly affected by the virus, lax supervision nationwide allowed for people to exploit the funds and programs for their own benefit.
In California, a man was recently sentenced to more than eight years in prison for stealing more than $6 million intended for small businesses. Several Illinois residents have been accused of stealing at least $16 million in small business loans and grants that came from pandemic money. And the Justice Department has announced federal charges against 47 people for their alleged roles in a $250 million fraud scheme involving a pandemic child nutrition program.
In Connecticut, Provost said, he doesn’t have “any opinion” on the possibility of DOC employees being prosecuted.