Dr. Ali Ghaffari, owner of Buena Vista, testifies Saturday during a hearing at the Curry County Courthouse. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Staff Writer
Decisions by state regulators to take over and then shut down Buena Vista Nursing Home had nothing to do with the actions of a state-appointed volunteer who propositioned Buena Vista employees for sex, an attorney for the state said Saturday.
District Judge Stephen Quinn didn’t make a final ruling Saturday but ordered attorneys for both sides to produce a summary of their findings of fact within 10 days so he can rule on whether the state was justified in taking control of Buena Vista.
“This case has nothing to do with a sex scandal; this case has everything to with a pattern of neglect,” health department attorney Susan Sullivan told Quinn.
“A volunteer ombudsman’s actions, as unsavory as they may be, cannot overturn history,” Sullivan said. “We would be the problem if we had not sought to take receivership of the facility.”
Sullivan made her comments after attorneys for Dr. Ali Ghaffari, owner of Buena Vista, played a tape recording in open court that they said contained an effort by the Rev. James Ingram to proposition Buena Vista activities director Bertha Salazar for sex.
Ghaffari said Ingram, a state-appointed advocate for residents at Buena Vista, identified himself as a minister and read the Bible to residents, although state officials said he wasn’t recruited in his clergy capacity. Salazar said she taped a call by him to her office in which he offered to help her get a supervisory position and said he would try to get Buena Vista shut down if managers continued to yell at Salazar.
Ingram’s phone number in Clovis has been disconnected. State officials say they don’t know how to find him and several Clovis ministers say they believe he’s moved out of the area.
Salazar told the court that she made her tape recording after Ingram repeatedly called her at work. Ghaffari’s attorney, Jason Bowles, asked her how she felt after receiving the calls.
“I felt disgusted, ashamed, scared; I didn’t want to go to work,” Salazar said. “I thought he was going to try to report to get the place shut down because Mrs. Ghaffari got mad at him when she said I couldn’t have personal phone calls at work.”
Sullivan said she was upset by the tape recording but told Quinn it didn’t outweigh the evidence presented in hours of testimony by state officials detailing their complaints against Buena Vista.
Describing conditions at Buena Vista as “an immediate threat the state could not ignore,” Sullivan said financial issues, procedural problems, lack of compliance with state and federal regulations, and physical plant defects added up to an imminent danger to residents.
“It is a rare thing for the state of New Mexico to come in and take over a health care facility, but the law says we have the right to do that,” Sullivan said. “Dr. Ghaffari may have had commitment and concern, but he did not have compliance (with regulations). That is a matter of public record.”
Ghaffari took the stand in his own defense and angrily fired back at Sullivan’s claims.
“Each time they come in, they cite you for something, and then we corrected it. We did get citations, as does every other nursing home,” Ghaffari said. “None of them you list come close to the level of ‘immediate jeopardy,’ except the water temperature for one day, and that we corrected.”
Ghaffari’s attorney said the case shows what the power of government can do when state officials decide to target a small business, and said the way the state took over his nursing home without first giving him a chance to make his case in court was a serious lack of due process.
“As this court is aware, Dr. Ghaffari has only been able to present his side of the case after his business had been taken away,” Bowles said. “This is a state employee soliciting sex for pay from Dr. Ghaffari’s staff and when he didn’t get what he wanted, he said he’d shut the place down.”
Fred Sandoval, Deputy Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, said even though the state’s position is that Ingram’s actions weren’t responsible for the state takeover of Buena Vista, it will aggressively investigate the case.
“When we have a policy of zero tolerance, it applies to us as well,” Sandoval said after the court hearing.
“I met with the Long Term Aging (Department) staff to make sure we are pursuing very aggressively any ombudsman accused,” Sandoval said. “What’s most important is doing an inquiry into whether any charges are pressed against him.”