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Gov.'s Donor Under Fire From State

Nursing home owner Emmanuel Bernabe has given Schwarzenegger nearly $70,000. His company faces criminal elder-neglect charges.

June 20, 2005|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A week after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned $10,000 to an Ohio contributor under federal fraud investigation, campaign finance reports show that the governor has accepted $67,300 from a La Canada Flintridge nursing home operator whose company faces criminal elder-neglect charges.

Emmanuel I. Bernabe, who owns or has interests in 35 California nursing homes, was listed as one of 14 dinner chairmen at a Schwarzenegger fundraiser at the Century Plaza Hotel on March 16.

One day later, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer filed a 13-count complaint against Bernabe's Pleasant Care Corp., alleging that the company and its Napa facility neglected residents, imperiling their health. The company has pleaded not guilty; the facility has been closed.

Although some of Bernabe's homes have been relatively problem-free, the Department of Health Services has cited several of the facilities for such problems as bad recordkeeping and patient neglect leading to bedsores, falls and, in a few instances, death.

State nursing home regulators, citing problems at homes that Bernabe and his partners own, have blocked him from buying more nursing homes in a series of actions dating to 1999.

Brenda Klutz, the state health department official who oversees nursing homes, said the denials apply to "anything Mr. Bernabe is involved in," including Pleasant Care and other corporations in which he might have interests.

"The record is very clear and speaks for itself," Klutz said. "There is a clear indication that we believe they have serious compliance problems, problems providing care."

Marty Wilson, one of Schwarzenegger's top political aides and fundraisers, said the governor and his staff were unaware of Bernabe's regulatory and legal difficulties until questioned by The Times.

"To the best of our knowledge, he has never asked for help, and we did check within the administration," Wilson said of Bernabe. Wilson stopped short of saying that the campaign was contemplating returning the money, but said, "We are reviewing the information on the donor."

Since the start of Schwarzenegger's administration, state regulators have cited 11 of Bernabe's homes at least 51 times and levied $285,000 in fines against his nursing homes, according to records provided by the Department of Health Services and a watchdog group, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

The 11 homes amount to less than 1% of the state's 1,300-plus nursing homes and account for nearly 7% of all citations issued since the beginning of 2004. The bulk of the 51 citations were issued against three Pleasant Care homes in Northern California.

Among the problems are an "AA" citation -- the Department of Health Services' most severe -- and an $80,000 fine imposed against a Pleasant Care home in Novato, north of San Francisco. Bernabe is disputing the citation.

According to the citation, the facility failed to properly treat a 74-year-old woman's bedsores, a type of infection that can occur when a patient remains in one position for too long. The sores went untreated and spread, and the woman died.

The health department issued an AA citation and a $60,000 fine in late 2003 against another Pleasant Care home in Ukiah, in Mendocino County, another citation Bernabe's company is disputing. The case involved a 54-year-old man who had a seizure while eating and began choking. Workers tried to use two suction devices to clear his throat. Neither worked, and the man died.

The bulk of the citations are for "B" violations, the least severe, which commonly involve $1,000 fines. Bernabe has paid some of those fines.

One citation was issued against the company's Santa Cruz facility in February 2004. The citation says that a nurse sent a man who had broken his arm in a fall that day to a dialysis center. The citation says the facility should have tended the broken arm before sending the patient to the center.

Bernabe is a significant donor to Schwarzenegger and other Republicans. He gave $10,000 to former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan's campaign for governor in 2002. He gave $10,000 to Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall campaign.

Pleasant Care donated $35,000 in 2004 to a Schwarzenegger campaign account established to promote ballot initiatives, and $22,300 to Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection committee, which is raising money in the event he runs for reelection next year. That donation ensured he would be listed as a dinner chairman at the governor's Century Plaza fundraiser in March.

In a statement, Pleasant Care said Bernabe donated money to Schwarzenegger out of "personal admiration and a degree of identification based on similar life experiences." Both men are immigrants who became financially successful.

"It goes without saying," the statement said, "that he expects no special consideration in return for any of these contributions and neither he nor any business with which he is associated has ever received such consideration."

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