Dangerous Duo

Husband-wife politicos are helping themselves at the expense of the elderly and infirm

Connie and Mark Thompson aren't letting ethics, honesty and honorable public service get in the way of boosting the fortunes of the elder care referral business they run from their Tempe office.

Instead, they are simply abusing their position of public trust to benefit their private business -- even if it means gutting protections for the old, the frail and the dying.

Mark Thompson, 46, was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives from District 17 in 2002. He ran as a "clean elections" candidate and received $31,000 in public funds, of which he paid his wife $2,888 for "political consulting."

After his election, Representative Thompson was awarded a position by House Republican leadership on the Health Committee, a perfect perch to boost the fortunes of his business.

His election came a year after Connie Thompson, 47, was appointed by then-governor Jane Hull to an obscure regulatory board that oversees nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The post gave Connie Thompson an inside track into structuring regulations that directly affect the family business.

From these two positions of public trust -- the legislator and the regulator -- the couple are in position to craft laws and regulations to benefit their business while, not coincidentally, stripping protections for the elderly out of state law.

Late last month, Mark Thompson voted for a bill in the House Health Committee that included an amendment -- which wasn't read into the record or debated -- that shields health-care institutions from being sued under the state's elder protection laws. The bill passed 8-4 and awaits action by the full House later this week.

House Bill 2439 provides civil immunity from elder protection laws to hundreds of assisted living centers in Arizona that do business with the Thompsons' company, Adult Care Consultants.

The Thompsons' company has a firm grip on providing patient referrals and licensing assistance to the fastest-growing segment of the elder care business. Unlike nursing homes, the state does not regulate those who provide direct care to the elderly in assisted living centers, but licenses only the managers of these businesses.

Even without the amendment gutting the right to seek legal redress, HB 2439 gives abused animals more legal protection than elderly adults, who are sometimes subjected to horrific conditions in facilities that care for the elderly.

"The elderly would have to park their constitutional rights at the door," says Barry Gold, director of the Governor's Council on Aging.

The American Association for Retired People, the Alzheimer's Association and several other major elder care advocacy groups are opposed to the bill.

The bill is touted by proponents -- including major hospital, nursing home and assisted living center operators -- and is expected to lead to significant savings in insurance costs. That could be a substantial windfall for the more than 1,200 assisted living centers scattered across the state -- the vast majority of which do business with the Thompsons' company.

Mark Thompson's participation in the hearing and subsequent vote in favor of the bill and amendment is a notorious example of a conflict of interest -- at least to me. The Republican legislator voted for a bill that potentially offers immense financial benefit to his business and its customers while gutting a legal remedy that provides a shred of protection to the elderly.

Mark Thompson has declined to talk to me about his self-serving vote.

But under the vapid House Ethics Rules, Mark Thompson's action is not a conflict of interest because his business is just one of a "class" of businesses that stand to benefit from the bill. In fact, Mark Thompson is a rising star in the House that is controlled with an iron fist by a couple of conservative Mormon Republicans -- Speaker of the House Jake Flake and House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth.

Flake last month stripped two Republican lawmakers of their committee chairs because they went against his wishes during last winter's special session on Child Protective Services by voting to spend more money to protect children. Freshman rep Mark Thompson was then awarded chairmanship of one of those, the Human Services Committee, for his boot-licking skills. It is very unusual for a first-term legislator to chair a committee.

At the same time Mark Thompson is doing his dirty work in the Legislature, wife Connie is under fire for unethical behavior as a member of a board that must have the longest and most cumbersome name of any regulatory panel in the state: the Arizona Board of Examiners of Nursing Care Institution Administrators and Assisted Living Facility Managers -- or the ABENCIAALFM for short.

Connie Thompson's effort in the last year to promote her personal business interests has paralyzed the board, which is supposed to be helping to protect the elderly from abuse in nursing homes and assisted living centers. Instead, it's bogged down in a personnel battle with her.

State records show that the board's executive director, Victoria Martin, believes that Connie Thompson has an undeclared conflict of interest because as a board member she approves training procedures for managers of assisted living centers at the same time her company offers management training courses.

Martin's complaints, first lodged last spring, eventually triggered an Attorney General's Office criminal investigation into Connie Thompson's conduct. The AG declined last September to prosecute Thompson, despite turning up plenty of muck. But the investigation, along with other information gathered by executive director Martin, ultimately led to a most unusual action.

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