They’re having a rough time of it over at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In June we learned the state health department never revealed the true scale of nursing home COVID-19 deaths at the end of last year, and their decision to use faulty tests from an unproven vendor may have contributed to the staggeringly high death rate.
Now testimony in a whistleblower lawsuit this week aimed at the agency’s Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan paints a picture of even more incompetence and dysfunction.
The lawsuit from the state’s former top epidemiologist Tony Cappello alleges he was fired by Ryan in retaliation for applying strict new legal guidance to federal HIV funding that may have been used illegally by the agency for years.
The timeline of Cappello’s firing is significant, because he was ultimately removed from his position in June of 2020, just months into the pandemic, along with several other key health officials, as Colorado Public Radio previously reported.
Cappello’s lawsuit says he discovered the state health department was delaying cashing HIV rebate checks from the feds, apparently to create what amounted to “shadow ops” slush funds for the agency.
The lawsuit states Cappello received updated legal guidance from the state Attorney’s General office in 2019 that federal HIV funding was to be spent solely on treating those living with HIV/aids, not preventative measures for which the state had previously used the money.
This did not go over well with HIV advocates who previously benefitted from those dollars. They immediately demanded Cappello’s removal in November of 2019.
Slowly but surely, Cappello was stripped of job responsibilities in the following months just as COVID-19 descended on Colorado.
In February 2020, Cappello said he was “leading the response” to COVID-19, designing a more unified command structure to respond to public health incidents. He said he was the “incident commander” at the time, informing Hunsaker Ryan and the governor’s office about what was happening. But almost immediately after his new command structure took effect, he said he was “completely sidelined” from participating in COVID-19 issues.
The next month, he said CDPHE Chief Medical Officer Eric France told him that he would no longer oversee the operations and finance branch that Shannon Flowers supervised. He filed a claim under the state’s whistleblower protection statute soon after.
“The continued harassment and retaliation that only occurred immediately after the Nov. 19 alliance meeting had continued to get worse and I was scared for my job,” he testified.
To buttress support for Cappello’s firing, Ryan testified she showed an audit of departments under Cappello’s watch to Gov. Polis’s Chief of Staff Lisa Kaufman, whom she says supported removing Cappello.
But according to testimony from other officials, the audit’s conclusions may have been compromised because of the very problems with the off-books HIV dollars Cappello was attempting to fix.
Ryan meanwhile attempted to play dumb throughout her testimony, stating she never truly understood the significance of the restrictive HIV legal guidance from the Attorney’s General office.
Her defense often sounded like something to the effect of “I couldn’t have retaliated against Cappello because I was too incompetent and oblivious.”
At the same time, she wants everyone to believe she understood enough of the situation to remove Cappello because he lost the “confidence” of politically connected HIV interest groups for the grave sin of simply following the law.
Lest it needs to be restated, Ryan is a member of Polis’s cabinet and in charge of leading the state’s health department through a pandemic.
The bottom line is it appears the state health department may have retaliated against Colorado’s top epidemiologist just months into the pandemic because Cappello had dared cut funding to some politically-connected interest groups.
Will there be any accountability at the state health department from Polis? Not likely. Doing so would be an admission he too was oblivious at the level of incompetence and mismanagement within the agency as COVID struck Colorado.
We’ll continue to follow this story closely, but what’s undeniable is Jill Hunsaker Ryan and the dumpster fire at CDPHE have managed to become an even larger albatross for Polis.