JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State regulators on Friday ordered the owners of a group home where 10 people died in a fire to shut down all four of their southwest Missouri facilities for the mentally ill and disabled.
The decision by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to strip the operating licenses of Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc. came one day after Attorney General Jay Nixon sued the company seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Both actions cited the assertion that the business was illegally operated by Robert DuPont, who had been barred from running long-term care facilities and participating in the Medicaid program because of a 2003 federal sentence in a Medicare and Medicaid fraud scheme.
River of Life's Anderson Guest House was destroyed by a Nov. 27 fire that killed 10 people and injured two dozen others. Investigators have not determined an exact cause but have said improper wiring in the attic may have been to blame.
The fire drew attention to the home's operator, and DuPont subsequently acknowledged in interviews with The Associated Press that he continued to be paid to help operate River of Life Ministries -- even after his conviction.
"After an investigation, we have determined that Robert DuPont was illegally involved in the operation of these facilities," state health director Jane Drummond said in a written statement. "Mr. DuPont's involvement is in violation of state law and is grounds for license denial."
The department ordered River of Life's facilities -- the Anderson one, two in Joplin, and one in Carl Junction -- to close by Jan. 5. The state said it would work with residents' families and guardians to find places for them to live.
DuPont said he was unaware of the closure order until contacted Friday by telephone by The Associated Press.
"That's sort of a final thing, I guess," DuPont said. "I'm disappointed about all this stuff. This is over 20 years of service to these people and then all of a sudden, because there's a tragedy, this is the way they're reacting. It's hard to understand.
"If they were all this bad, why didn't they shut them down before the fire?" DuPont asked.
A person who answered the phone at Joplin River of Life Ministries said the business had no immediate comment.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press under Missouri's open records law have revealed a history of fire safety violations and violent incidents at facilities owned by Robert and LaVerne DuPont. Documents also show that top state regulators suggested in January to Drummond -- then the department's legal counsel -- that their licenses should be revoked because of potential financial insolvency. But the department instead granted River of Life Ministries a series of temporary permits that were valid until Friday's decision.
Joplin River of Life Ministries has 15 days to appeal the license denials and revocations to the state Administrative Hearing Commission. DuPont said he was in the process of hiring an attorney and did not know yet whether there would be an appeal.
Nixon called the department's closure notice "a very weak response to a very serious problem."
The attorney general had wanted to ask a judge to appoint a receiver to manage the homes until they close. But because the department did not find that the "lives, health, safety or welfare of the residents" was at risk, Nixon cannot proceed with a receivership request.
Health department spokesman Nanci Gonder said agency inspectors on Thursday night visited the three facilities that remained open after the fire and found no reason to believe the residents were in danger. The department also had found no pre-approved receivers -- nor anyone else -- who was interested in taking over the facilities, she said.
On its license application documents, River of Life Ministries had answered "no" to questions of whether its operator or any principals had been excluded from the Medicaid program or convicted of a crime related to the provision of health care or operation of a long-term care facility.
But the health department said in letters Friday to the business that its post-fire investigation showed DuPont was "involved in all operational decisions" for the facilities. That included hiring and firing employees, admitting residents, overseeing grocery supplies and residents' funds, attending board meetings and providing direction for Medicaid billings, the letters said.
"It is unconscionable that Mr. DuPont would knowingly break the law and try to conceal his involvement so these facilities could get their licenses," Drummond said. "His actions are directly to blame for these facilities closing."
DuPont has claimed state inspectors knew all along of his involvement.
Officials at the state health and mental health departments acknowledged earlier this week that those inspectors who encountered DuPont on the job likely did not realize he was blacklisted, and that their notes were not shared with state licensing officials. They vowed to correct that information gap.
The attorney general's lawsuit filed Thursday names as defendants Robert and LaVerne DuPont, as well as Joplin River of Life Ministries. It claims they illegally concealed Robert DuPont's involvement with the business and alleges violations of Missouri's false claims law, breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
The lawsuit seeks to recoup $689,491 in Medicaid payments made to River of Life Ministries, plus damages of about $2.1 million and an unspecified civil penalty for each allegedly fraudulent Medicaid billing made by the company.