President Trump on Wednesday appointed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – a former rival and deposed head of his transition team – to lead a White House commission to combat drug addiction and named Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi a commission member.
During a White House listening session on Wednesday, Trump, Christie, Bondi, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Cabinet members and policy makers heard from a recovered addict, the founder of a drug treatment center and a mother whose son had overdosed and died.
“I am honored to be appointed to the President’s Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission,” Bondi said in a press release. “I want to thank the president of the United States, Governor Christie and many others for caring about this deadly epidemic.”
Christie has made drug treatment the centerpiece of his administration and has dedicated his final year in office to addressing the drug crisis.
During an event at Caron Renaissance in Boca Raton in 2015, Christie – then a candidate for president – said his empathy for addicts came from his personal experience with his mother’s cigarette addiction and a law school friend’s overdose death from painkillers.
The commission is being rolled out as part of a new office led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has had a frosty relationship with Christie, a former U.S. attorney.
Christie obtained convictions against Kushner’s father in 2004 and 2005 for illegal campaign contributions, criminal tax evasion and witness tampering.
Kushner and Christie had lunch together at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s drug policy. Exactly what the commission will do and how it will be financed is not yet known.
But Christie offered some details about his plan while speaking at Caron Renaissance in 2015.
“First you have to change the mindset of prosecutors,” candidate-Christie said. “Sometimes justice means prosecuting and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Christie said he would create drug courts in each of the 93 federal court districts and use the money saved by diverting addicts from prison to provide more public drug treatment.
Christie’s position leading the new commission is a volunteer one. However, people close to him say that he is open to potentially joining the administration when his term ends in January.
“I just feel that it’s important that we try to fight this head on with as many resources as we can,’’ said Ilan Kaufer, the vice mayor for Jupiter, who proposed the resolution.
“I’m sure the governor understands this is a serious issue and I’m hopeful he will provide the state with the resources to save more lives.’’
Aside from the county’s League of Cities and Colbath, other public officials and agencies who have asked Scott to declare a health emergency over the epidemic include Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the Village of Wellington and the Martin County Commission.
Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig was among the 16 members who supported the league’s resolution – even though she refused to sign the village’s council’s letter to Scott earlier this month.
Gerwig said she would have signed the village council letter if it had been worded differently and discussed first in public.
Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath has joined a growing list of public officials asking Gov. Rick Scott to help local communities deal with the opioid epidemic.
“I am writing to you with deep and growing concern over the deadly impact the opioid epidemic is having on our state. As Chief Judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit, I have witnessed how this escalating problem has particularly impacted Palm Beach County,’’ Colbath said in a letter to Scott on March 17.
“I request that you declare a public health emergency to marshal resources, implement new strategies and raise awareness so we can all more effectively combat this epidemic.”
“The statistics for 2016 are grim,’’ Colbath wrote, pointing out 551 overdose deaths tallied so far by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s office for the first 11 months of 2016.
“The death toll, once December’s numbers are in, (is) expected to approach or even exceed 600 deaths.’’
Colbath’s letter also pointed out it costs Palm Beach County Fire Rescue at least $1,500 to respond to each overdose call. “The emotional toll to them, furthermore, is incalculable,’’ he said.
“Our county and municipalities are bearing the brunt of these costs. Businesses are being harmed; families are being devastated. .. We are doing what we can at the local level, but our resources are limited.’’
Although Colbath’s letter cited local statistics, he said the epidemic has spread beyond Palm Beach County:
“This is a statewide problem that requires a statewide response,’’ he wrote.
“With increased state help, and through your leadership as Governor, we can together stem this tide of tragedies.’’
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson took to the Senate floor today to urge his colleagues not to take up any legislation that would reduce money and efforts to combat the nation’s growing opioid epidemic.
“Opioid abuse is a deadly, serious problem and we cannot ignore it,” he said. “We should be investing more resources into helping these people and their families, not cutting them at a time that we need it the most.”
Nelson’s speech, which mentions Palm Beach County, come as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on a new health care bill that would reduce federal funding for Medicaid, which funds one fourth of the country’s substance abuse programs.
“In addition to the devastating loss of life and the challenges for the new caregivers, opioid abuse is straining local and state budgets,” Nelson said before mentioning efforts by vice mayor Melissa McKinlay to fight the crisis.
“Just last month the vice mayor of Palm Beach County sent a letter to the governor urging to declare a public health emergency in Florida, citing the loss of life and financial impact, in this case, to Palm Beach County.”
Congress voted last year to provide additional funding to help fight the growing epidemic after more than 2,000 Floridians died in 2015 from an opioid overdose.
Nelson spoke for nearly 9 minutes. His speech can be seen here.
Here is the full transcript of Nelson’s speech:
Madam President, there has been a lot of conversation from so many of our fellow senators about the opioid crisis that has been devastating individuals and families across the country.
We heard this particularly in New Hampshire as it was a topic of discussion last fall during the election. It was an opportunity to bring to the nation’s attention because of the eyes being focused first on the New Hampshire primary of a real opioid crisis. Well, what we also then discussed was it wasn’t just affecting a few states. It was affecting most of the states. And that is the case with my state of Florida.
Addiction to opioids has reached staggering levels, and the situation is only getting worse. In 2015 more than 33,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdose. That’s 15% more people than had died just the previous year. And I don’t have the figures for last year 2016.
And so Florida, is right there in that national trend. What Florida saw between 2014 and 2015 was a 22.7% increase. It’s staggering because in that year Florida suffered over 2,000 deaths from opioid overdose.
Earlier this month our office interviewed a woman from Florida’s Aging Committee hearing — we interviewed a lady from Florida for yesterday’s Aging Committee’s hearing, and she is caring for her 7-year-old grandson because his mother lost custody, was later incarcerated due to her drug addiction.
And sadly this story is all too familiar. The number of grandparents serving as the primary caretakers for their grandchildren is increasing as was the case with the lady from Florida who testified at the Aging Committee hearing this week. They are primary caretakers for their grandchildren, and it’s in large part because of the opioid epidemic.
In addition to the devastating loss of life and the challenges for the new caregivers, opioid abuse is straining local and state budgets. Just last month the vice mayor of Palm Beach County sent a letter to the governor urging to declare a public health emergency in Florida, citing the loss of life and financial impact, in this case, to Palm Beach County.
Yesterday several of my colleagues and I sent a letter to the majority leader, majority leader of the Senate, highlighting some of our concerns with the House of Representatives health care bill that I call Trumpcare and how it’s going to impact those with substance abuse and disorders. Because one of the things that we’re most concerned about is how the proposed changes in Medicaid that they’re going to vote at the other end of the hall right down here tomorrow, they’re going to vote on the House of Representatives health care Trumpcare bill, the changes that they make to Medicaid, it would prevent states from being able to respond to the opioid crisis because Medicaid plays a critical role in the fight against opioids.
But changing the Medicaid program to a block grant or a cap is going to shift cost to the states. The states are not going to pick up that additional cost. It’s going to eliminate also some of the federal protections and it’s only going to hurt our people who rely on Medicaid to help them as we are combating this opioid crisis.
Because with less federal funding, how are states like mine going to provide the necessary services to help individuals with the substance abuse and the disorders. Congress ought to be doing more to help this crisis, not less.
And how many times have you heard a senator like this senator come to the floor and talk about the opioid epidemic? And yet we’re just about to do it to ourselves if we were to pass this Trumpcare bill.
Remember last year while so many of us, including this senator, were early supporters of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016? It was signed into law last year. The law takes a comprehensive approach to this opioid problem.
A few months ago a lot of us including this senator voted to provide additional funding to start implementing this crucial new law to fight the opioid addictions. And despite this progress, now the House tomorrow, probably tomorrow night is about to pass legislation that would completely undermine last year’s bipartisan efforts to respond to the epidemic and to undercut the health care for millions of people in this country.
Opioid abuse is a deadly, serious problem and we cannot ignore it. We should be investing more resources into helping these people and their families, not cutting them at a time that we need it the most.
So, again, I make a plea. We made progress last year with the law. We passed the new law. We made progress giving some additional funding. Now, the crisis hasn’t gone away. We still need to respond but at the very same time what we see happening to the Medicaid program – eliminating Medicaid as we know it, health care for the people that are then least fortunate among us, we’re about to cut back on all that progress that we made on this opioid crisis. I hope that we will think better of this and not do it to ourselves.
The Medical Examiner tweets that they have had 10 overdose deaths today alone, raising the possibility an especially lethal version of heroin is being sold locally.
The drug that has been most linked to heroin deaths is fentanyl, and variations of it, such as carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer. It’s sometimes mixed into heroin, sometimes sold as heroin, sometimes mixed with cocaine.
In 2015, 216 people in Palm Beach County died after using fentanyl, heroin or illicit morphine, the three drugs at the heart of the drug crisis. Last year, more than 200 locals died with fentanyl in their system.
And at a recent National League of Cities meeting in Washington, DC, one out-of-state city official talking about overdoses in his community said,”We don’t have a heroin problem anymore. We have a fentanyl problem.”
Whatever the problem is behind the rash of overdoses, The Medical Examiner’s twitter message to users was a red flag: “You’ve been warned.”
Drug treatment center owner Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to recruit persons into sexual acts, a charge that could send him to prison for life.
His wife, Laura Chatman, pleaded guilty to two counts of falsifying and covering up the ownership of the treatment centers. She applied for state licensure for the facilities even though her husband, a felon, was the one owning and operating them. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Their sentencing will be May 17 at 10 a.m.
Chatman had been charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to commit health care fraud. His wife had been charged with conspiracy to commit health care fraud and multiple counts of money laundering.
Chatman owned Reflections Treatment Center in central Broward County and operated sober homes throughout Palm Beach County. The places were notorious drug dens, with up to 90 percent of patients – who were supposed to be getting sober – doing drugs.
One of them was Jim Donahue, who was investigated after speaking out about PBSO’s budget.
PBSO records show that in 2010, the department opened an investigation into Donahue, a week after he went before county commissioners with complaints about the department’s budget. He filed to run for office, but never appeared on the ballot. He was charged with four felonies stemming from discrepancies on his 2008 application to work at PBSO. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
Lewis was cleared by the ethics commission. The ethics commission also found no probable cause that Bradshaw “disclosed inside information for his personal benefit or for the benefit of another.”
The commission also found no probable cause that Bradshaw’s number two, Chief Deputy Michael Gauger, “misused his position to direct an investigation of a candidate or expected candidate for Sheriff and to recommend the filing of criminal charges against him.”
The board, which rules on ethics issues involving politicians and state employees, also found no probable cause that Gauger investigated others in Palm Beach County.
Bradshaw told The Palm Beach Post in early February that the ethics commission had already found no probable cause against him.
“I was told through my lawyers no probable cause,” Bradshaw said. He described the investigation of Donahue as legitimate.
“He wrote a 50 page letter about how corrupt we were,” Bradshaw said. “The more we looked at it the more we saw he had put inaccurate information.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Monday’s panel discussion will kick off the main afternoon meeting, which will be followed with a speech from Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin.
It’s unclear, though, Shulkin will discuss the opioid epidemic.
Anthony, a former mayor of South Bay, said he invited Palm Beach Post reporter Pat Beall to moderate Monday’s panel after following the newspaper’s extensive coverage of the crisis.
In particular, he said, he was moved by the newspaper’s front page on Nov. 20, 2016, which featured the faces of all 216 people who died of accidental overdoses in 2015 as part of a yearlong investigation into the crisis.
“With all those faces, that was the most impactful piece I’d seen,’’ Anthony said. I knew some of the names and the families.’’
More than 2,000 municipal leaders are expected to attend the NLC conference next week. Local leaders will include West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and Lake Worth City Commissioner Andy Amoroso.
“This meeting is focused on advocacy and education,’’ said Anthony, who returns home to West Palm Beach most weekends.
“There are cities all over America that are doing creative things to address this problem. Safe injection sites in Seattle is prime example.
“Our ultimate goal is to give our elected officials the tools to go back home and implement some of the specific programs that other communities have found successful.’’
Another goal, he said, will be to continue encouraging leaders to look past the stigma of drug addiction that has delayed effective responses.
“We think we know that from our data that local government officials are the most trusted level. So when they go back, whether they like it or not, they have to be leaders in coming up with solutions and assume their role of leadership around this issue,’’ Anthony said
“And they can only do that through reading your articles and also learning from each other, what has worked what are some of the challenges with that they’ve recommended.
“We know this panel is timely. We know the workshop is needed.’’
New charges have been filed against a doctor who worked for Kenneth Chatman’s notorious sober home operation, where women addicts were prostituted, held against their will and allowed to continue using drugs, according to court records.
The new charges against Dr. Joaquin Mendez include conspiracy to commit health care fraud, giving a false statement relating to health-care fraud and money laundering.
Another doctor charged in the case, Dr. Donald Willems, is expected to appear in federal court this afternoon. Federal prosecutors want Willems bond revoked. They say he continued to work in a drug treatment center and continued prescribing drugs he was not authorized to prescribe – activities prohibited as a condition of his bond.
Mendez is one of two doctors charged with ordering unnecessary urine drug tests for addicts enrolled in Chatman’s treatment centers, Reflections and Journey.
Chatman and several alleged co-conspirators also operated numerous sober homes, including Stay’n Alive, Redemption Sober House and Total Recovery Sober Living, and an unnamed facility at 962 W. 43rd St., West Palm Beach.
All the facilities were in business to provide safe and drug-free residences for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, an industry fueled by a nationwide heroin epidemic.
But federal prosecutors, who have been investigating the industry in South Florida for more than two years, say they were more akin to fraud machines that engaged in human trafficking.
Three of the seven charged in the case have pleaded guilty. Court papers filed be a federal prosecutor say Chatman and his wife, Laura, also plan to plead guilty.
Dr. Mendez wants a trial, according to court papers.
Mendez attorney recently filed court papers asking for more time to prepare for trial, citing a “massive” amount of records accumulated as part of Operation Thoroughbred – the name of the federal task force investigating corruption in South Florida’s drug treatment industry.
Richard Lubin, a veteran attorney with a career full of high-profile cases, wrote in court papers that the amount of evidence against his client is more than he has seen in 42-years of practice.
How much evidence?
326 gigabytes of digital records copied onto an encrypted hard drive.
236,245 digital files organized into 8,307 folders.
16,064 records in 133 files of patient data
1,719 patient case files with as many as 600 pages in each file.
30 FBI taped interviews
225 boxes of paper documents that prosecutors say will take 6-8 weeks to copy
All the facilities were in business to provide safe and drug-free residences for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, an industry fueled by a nationwide heroin epidemic.
But federal prosecutors, who have been investigating the industry in South Florida for more than two years, say they were more akin to fraud machines that engaged in human trafficking. These are the first charges to be filed from the federal probe.