Lucy Lang says prosecutors have a role advocating for better oversight of long-term care facilities, and pursuing those who harm the elderly.
The COVID-19 crisis wears on. The number of cases steadily climbs. The death toll slowly mounts. The economic damage deepens. And for those determined to use fear and confusion to rip off the elderly, the opportunities to exploit the virus proliferate.
The Federal Communications Commission has warned about a menu of COVID-19 scams targeting older people, from calls about phony Social Security benefit suspensions to fake IRS warnings about overdue payments to fictitious investment opportunities. All targeted were in a demographic group that has suffered mightily from the disease itself.
Lucy Lang, a Democrat running for Manhattan District Attorney, on Tuesday unveiled a proposal for a criminal crackdown on elder scams—and unhealthy nursing homes.
The latter proposal could introduce a new element into the ongoing debate over whether the large COVID-19 death toll in New York nursing homes—at least 6,000 deaths—is primarily the result of poor care by the homes, decisions by the Cuomo administration, or simply the ravages of a highly contagious and deadly pathogen.
Lang spent 12 years in the Manhattan DA’s office before leaving to head the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College. She is one of a very crowded field seeking to unseat incumbent DA Cyrus Vance, who has been in office since 2010. With every candidate embracing the call for deeper reform of the criminal justice system, many of the hopefuls have sought to distinguish themselves by proposing more dramatic changes or staking out new areas where prosecutors might focus their powers.
Decrying the cruelty of death by incarceration, Tahanie Aboushi has vowed not to seek any sentences of greater than 20 years. Janos Martin proposes a restorative justice program. Alvin Bragg would hire people who were once incarcerated to lead efforts to make prison reentry work better. Dan Quart wants to end mass gang arrests based on surveillance or databases. Environmental justice is one thing Tali Farhadian Weinstein has focused on, while Liz Crotty has called for changing how hate crimes are dealt with, and Diana Florence wants to use prosecutorial power to combat unaffordable housing. Eliza Orlins is vowing to create “specialized bureaus to combat corrupt public officials, exploitative landlords and employers” as well as cops who “commit acts of physical abuse and perjury and who engage in violations of civil rights.”
Lang probably has the most detailed policy platform at present. Most of them address familiar criminal-justice reform topics, but she says the focus on elder scams grew out of “talking to neighbors and friends throughout New York who were concerned about the increasing appearance of people looking to take advantage of the pandemic.”
Her proposal calls for creating a task-force to coordinate existing elements of the DA’s office, like the Elder Abuse Unit and Special Victims Bureau, to focus on COVID-19 fraud against older people and other vulnerable New Yorkers. The task force would last well beyond the end of the pandemic—”for as long as the statute of limitations allows,” Lang’s campaign literature says.
Lang also promises to “investigate nursing homes that fail to meet public health requirements.”
“Given the increased risk of COVID-19 in congregant living environments and the disproportionate number of preventable deaths in nursing homes, the government has a duty to make sure that residents are not put needlessly at risk,” a campaign policy paper reads. The DA’s role will be to advocate for more oversight but also to “where appropriate, prosecute nursing homes for financial fraud, kickbacks, or fraudulent assurances of compliance with COVID-19 regulations designed to save lives.”
Cuomo’s order in March requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients being discharged from hospitals came in for withering criticism as the death toll mounted in congregate settings. The governor produced research indicating that staff members, not residents, were likely what fueled the rapid and deadly spread of the disease in homes, but some have questioned those findings. Lang did not take sides. “I can’t speak to what caused the conflagration of cases,” she said. “It should be investigated.”
The state Department of Health is primarily responsible for regulating nursing homes, although the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services can also promulgate rules that affect long-term care facilities. Among those other players, Lang sees the DA “as serving in a supporting and convening role,” she says – doing things like making sure subpoenas are obeyed and, when there’s criminal behavior, using the tools of criminal prosecution.
A key part of the work is understanding the vulnerabilities of older people, who might fear retaliation for reporting crimes, or not have the kind of communication access that permits them to easily ask for help. With that in mind, she plans to hire outreach workers who connect with members of their communities to help victims feel more comfortable reporting. The task-force itself will include prosecutors and investigators as well as social workers and clinicians, and it will work with community-based organizations to aggregate cases and identify trends.
Lang acknowledges that many of the problems faced by New York’s elders, in nursing homes or elsewhere, might not be the result of intentional criminal acts but resource disparities or other structural issues. Understanding those is part of the role of the task-force, she says. When criminal activity is uncovered, throwing someone in jail will not necessarily be the response.
“As DA, I will intentionally seek to shrink the criminal-justice footprint. That doesn’t mean withdrawing from protecting people,” she says. Ideally, she adds, it means finding solutions that avoid prosecution.
Vance himself has pursued elder abuse cases. In 2018, his office charged a real-estate broker with using an elderly victim’s property to secure $8 million in fraudulent loans. In 2017, he went after a home-health aide for taking $300,000 from an elderly couple. Predatory bank employees, a larcenous sweet-shop worker and people who allegedly perpetrated a “Chinese blessing” scam have also been prosecuted for scamming older people.
However, Elizabeth Loewy, who established the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan DA’s Office under then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, praised Lang’s proposal.
“Lucy’s plan to address COVID-related scams is proactive and will help protect seniors and vulnerable populations in Manhattan,” Loewy says. “Elder financial abuse is a critical issue that robs seniors of billions of dollars every year, and I’m glad to see a candidate for District Attorney tackle this issue head-on.”
“I’m glad to see elder abuse will receive much needed attention,” says Bobbie Sackman, a veteran advocate for the aging. She feels the next DA could focus even more broadly on the risks faced by senior citizens. “This [policy] raises the issue of scams, which are important, of course, but elders are at increased risk of abuse by their own family members—most frequently, financial abuse, but also physical, emotional and sometimes sexual abuse.”
“I really like the nursing home piece,” Sackman added. “The state just doesn’t do its job taking on the poor care that’s gone on there for decades which COVID blew open.”