Nassau County’s top correction official repeatedly came to the defense of the jail’s private medical contractor after an oversight agency found the vendor provided inadequate care in connection with inmate deaths, state records show.
In letters to New York’s Commission of Correction, Sheriff Michael Sposato defended Armor Correctional Health Services in three of the five cases where the state agency criticized the company after investigating Nassau inmate deaths.
Sposato’s letters were an opportunity to comment on state findings that the commission gave the Sheriff’s Department — and Armor — before publicly releasing its reports.
The sheriff didn’t take a position on Armor’s care in the other two inmate fatalities involving state criticism of the medical provider.
But the documents, which Newsday obtained from the commission under the Freedom of Information Law, show Sposato’s defense of Armor continued even last summer.
By that time, the commission, which investigates all inmate deaths, already had found Armor provided deficient care in four of those five Nassau jail custody fatalities.
But Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has touted Armor’s contract as a success, calling it a multimillion-dollar savings for taxpayers in every annual state of the county speech he’s made since 2012.
Sposato, a Mangano appointee who runs the jail, also has called Armor’s contract a boost to public safety because significantly fewer inmates now leave the East Meadow facility for medical treatment.
The for-profit company first won a county contract in mid-2011, establishing a public-private partnership that replaced health care services that nearby Nassau University Medical Center had provided to inmates.
However, Armor — which has defended its medical practices — recently said it wouldn’t bid to renew its contract that ends in May.
The company threatened Wednesday to terminate its agreement early and pull out of the jail by Oct. 7 if it didn’t get about $2 million in county payments by Friday.
Armor wouldn’t comment on its intentions after Nassau Comptroller George Maragos on Friday authorized a payment of about half that amount, after he found the company satisfied his documentation requests.
The conflict began after Maragos’ recent refusal to pay two of Armor’s monthly bills of about $1 million each until the company provided sufficient data showing it was meeting contract performance standards.
His refusal came after New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against Armor in July alleging that the Florida-based vendor has supplied Nassau inmates with “woefully and dangerously inadequate health services.”
The civil action further said Armor defrauded Nassau taxpayers by continuing to collect millions in public money, while county officials failed to take action to enforce terms of the company’s contract.
But Capt. Michael Golio, a spokesman for Sposato, said in a recent statement after a Newsday inquiry that the sheriff maintains that inmate health services at the jail have improved since Armor took over.
The statement also said Sposato “stands behind the responses” defending Armor in letters to the state commission.
Mangano’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Armor didn’t respond to a question about the sheriff’s defense of the company.
In two July 2015 letters, Sposato wrote that “the county remains confident in Armor’s experience, credentials and ability to provide appropriate services,” at the jail, and “continues to be satisfied with their performance.”
He added: “Armor has the necessary protocols and policies in place to ensure quality care, and to quickly identify issues requiring their attention and take corrective measures.”
The sheriff’s correspondences were responses to the commission’s findings that the 2014 deaths of inmates Kevin Brown and John Gleeson “may have been prevented” with proper care.
Besides probing inmate deaths, the commission enforces minimum standards for the care and custody of inmates and can close correctional facilities it finds unsafe.
Gleeson’s father, John, a retired FDNY battalion chief, said in an interview that Sposato’s defense of Armor appears to be an effort to protect the county from liability.
“This is just dirty politics at its worst. He was just covering the county’s backside,” said Gleeson, 67, of Oceanside.
The county legislature’s minority party leader, Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), said Sposato hadn’t acted in taxpayers’ best interests by defending Armor. He added that Mangano, a Republican, was “just as much accountable” for the defense of Armor in the aftermath of inmate deaths.
“I think it was very clear Armor wasn’t up to the task. In our opinion, they’ve been a total disaster,” Abrahams said in a recent interview. “I don’t see how you could be in the highest position of corrections in the county and back them.”
First inmate death
Records show the sheriff’s defense of Armor dates back to an inmate fatality at the start of the public-private partnership.
After inmate Roy Nordstrom’s June 2011 death, the state commission found in 2012 that Armor had given him “grossly incompetent” care.
It said Armor staff failed to recognize that Nordstrom, 47, was in distress after he complained of chest pains, and didn’t get the Shirley man to a hospital for 45 minutes despite a clear emergency.
The commission recommended that Mangano conduct an inquiry into Armor’s fitness to serve as medical provider at the jail.
However, a joint letter in July 2012 from Sposato and Armor senior official Karen Davies said Nassau officials were “satisfied” with Armor’s “performance, their findings related to the incident and actions taken by them.”
In the letter, Armor also called its care of Nordstrom “reasonable and adequate,” and said there was no incompetence by its staff.
“We thank you for the opportunity to respond to your report and trust our responses address your concerns,” Sposato wrote.
In the Nordstrom case, the county and Armor each sent a letter to the commission after the state agency released its final report.
In those October 2012 letters, Sposato and Davies both contested a claim that the Sheriff’s Department had dismissed the state body’s recommendation for an inquiry into Armor’s fitness to serve as the jail’s medical provider.
Both letters ended with an identical sentence: “The county remains confident in Armor’s experience, credentials and ability to provide appropriate services” at the jail.
More deaths follow
In 2013, the oversight agency found Armor provided “inadequate” evaluation and treatment in connection with the February 2012 jail suicide of inmate Bartholomew Ryan, 32, an Iraq War veteran.
In a January 2013 letter, Sposato made no comments about Armor’s involvement in the case.
But he attached a letter from Davies in which she said a doctor who did a psychiatric assessment of the combat veteran acted “adequately and reasonably.”
“There is no evidence that Mr. Ryan exhibited suicidal ideation at any time before the terminal event,” the Armor official said.
By then, the county and Armor already had spent months fighting a federal wrongful-death lawsuit Ryan’s family filed in 2012.
In 2014, the inmates Brown and Gleeson died in cases that later would prompt the commission to declare Armor had “engaged in a pattern of inadequate and neglectful medical care.”
In those 2015 findings, the commission also questioned the company’s ability to treat inmates in not just Nassau, but the state. It also recommended that Nassau’s legislature investigate Armor’s ability to serve as the jail’s medical provider.
But Sposato’s letters to the state also questioned the commission’s authority to make that recommendation. The sheriff suggested the commission was overstepping its authority by trying to call alleged Armor shortcomings to the attention of county legislators.
A sheriff’s spokesman told Newsday Sposato “was legitimately questioning” the agency’s authority, “as such a directive did not appear to be authorized” under state law.
In nearly identical July 2015 letters, Sposato’s defense of Armor in the Brown and Gleeson cases included that Armor was “the most qualified bidder” after a “lengthy and rigorous competitive bidding process.”
He added: “Armor submitted a proposal that best met the needs of the department, and which reflected that they had both the resources and stability to sustain a quality and effective inmate health care system at the jail.”
By then, Armor’s initial two-year contract already had been extended twice — and beyond the time the original agreement allowed for extensions — without the county seeking new bids.
Brown’s mother, Queens resident Marcella Brown, 79, said the sheriff’s letter to the state about her son’s care made her angry.
“They couldn’t have been doing a good job,” she said of Armor.
Brown’s attorney, Joseph Dell of Garden City, said he was “shocked” Sposato would defend Armor.
“He should know in the position that he’s in that they weren’t rendering quality care,” the attorney said, before adding that accountability ultimately rests with Mangano.
Letters from Davies rebutting the commission’s findings were attached to Sposato’s letters on Gleeson and Brown.
Davies told state officials that their conclusions that Brown’s February 2014 death and Gleeson’s July 2014 death “may have been prevented” were “presumptuous.”
Davies wrote that the death of Brown, 47, of Far Rockaway, “was entirely unrelated to Armor’s treatment of him.”
The commission found Brown died of heart failure after not getting adequate care for heart disease, seizure disorder and psychiatric problems.
The oversight agency also blamed jail officials for a lapse in the supervision of Brown, whose body was in full rigor mortis when found — a sign he’d been dead more than four hours.
Davies’ letter to the commission in Gleeson’s case called the 40-year-old Oceanside man’s death “a tragedy.”
She said Gleeson “had a rare form of a deadly disease about which the medical staff was not informed by history and which was masked by the symptoms of another, much more common condition.”
The commission found Gleeson, who had a condition where swelling can lead to breathing emergencies, wasn’t sent to a hospital when he first needed it, and didn’t get a specialist referral or a correct diagnosis and proper treatment.
Inmates who were on Gleeson’s jail tier on the night he died said his throat swelled to shocking proportions, but Armor sent him back to his cell after giving him Benadryl, Newsday reported last year.
The families of Brown and Gleeson also have federal lawsuits against the county and Armor.
State findings in the Gleeson case became public in October 2015, prompting calls from the county legislature’s minority party leader and inmate advocates for Mangano to suspend Armor’s contract.
Armor’s contract says the county can end the agreement for any reason upon 30 days’ written notice and immediately for “cause.”
But Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin released a statement after the Brown findings became public in November 2015 saying the county attorney’s office “opined that the county cannot cancel the contract without subjecting taxpayers to significant liability as the allegations have not been substantiated to date.”
The statement also said officials had started drafting a request for proposals to solicit bids for a new jail medical contract — an RFP they issued in March.
State’s fifth criticism
In June, the state commission found the May 2015 death of inmate Antonio Marinaccio Jr., 53, “may have been prevented” with proper medical treatment — its fifth criticism of Armor’s care after a Nassau inmate death probe.
It also recommended again that Nassau’s legislature conduct an inquiry into Armor.
Marinaccio’s family, who filed a lawsuit against Armor and the county, said the Levittown man became brain dead after a heart attack in jail.
The commission found Armor failed to provide crucial care and one of its nurses abandoned Marinaccio after he stopped breathing.
But in a May 2016 letter, Davies said the conclusion Marinaccio’s death “may have been prevented” was “presumptuous.”
A letter from Sposato said an attorney for the legislature’s presiding officer, Republican Norma Gonsalves, had started a probe into Armor “some time ago” and was waiting for the commission to provide records in order to proceed.
A Gonsalves spokesman said the inquiry remains ongoing despite difficulties created by the commission providing heavily redacted records — redactions a commission spokeswoman said the agency had to make by law to protect private health information.
In Marinaccio’s case, the commission’s findings intersected with the state attorney general’s probe of Armor — with the case report becoming an exhibit in the July lawsuit against Armor.
Another exhibit in that lawsuit shows Davies said under questioning from Schneiderman’s office that Armor didn’t fully comply with Nassau contract terms involving quality improvement programs.
She also said Armor hadn’t submitted statistics reflecting monthly performance benchmarks since the inception of the company’s contract, according to the same court filing.
Records show Davies also told Schneiderman’s office that Sheriff’s Department employees had said Armor didn’t have to provide certain reports or information.
“Armor has no comment on matters obtained through legal filings, but is very focused on the forthcoming legal proceeding,” a company spokeswoman said.