Friday, May 24, 2024

Lawsuit Puts Fresh Focus on Eric Hovde’s Comments About Older Voters


Eric Hovde, the Republican banking executive challenging Senator Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, may be developing a problem with older voters.

The bank he leads, Utah-based Sunwest, last month was named as a co-defendant in a California lawsuit that accuses a senior living facility partly owned by the bank of elder abuse, negligence and wrongful death.

Mr. Hovde’s campaign called the suit meritless and said it was farcical to hold the chairman and chief executive of a bank responsible for the actions of a business that it seized in a foreclosure in 2021. Whatever its merits, the suit might have been largely irrelevant to Mr. Hovde’s political campaign had he himself not boasted recently of having gained expertise in the nursing home industry as a lender to such residences.

In comments this month in which he suggested there had been irregularities in the 2020 election, Mr. Hovde drew on that experience to say that residents of nursing homes “have a five-, six-month life expectancy” and that “almost nobody in a nursing home is at a point to vote.” Those remarks were quickly condemned by Democrats in Wisconsin and by the former Milwaukee Bucks star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The recent pileup of problems is an inauspicious start to a campaign that Republicans hope will help wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. Mr. Hovde is one of four affluent Republicans who are running to unseat Democratic incumbents, in Ohio, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Each of those states either leans heavily Republican in the upcoming presidential contest or is rated a tossup, and the loss of any one of those seats could cost Democrats control of the Senate. The deep pockets of candidates like Mr. Hovde will ease the G.O.P.’s heavy fund-raising burden as the party confronts Democrats’ early financial advantage.

But Mr. Hovde’s stumbles point to a difficulty with that self-funding strategy: With business wealth and business experience come business problems.

The wrongful death lawsuit is a case in point.

In 2021, Sunwest Bank seized the property of a 68-bed assisted living facility in Claremont, Calif., after its owners failed to repay a $6 million loan. The next year, Betty Nottoli, a 94-year-old woman with dementia, moved into the renamed Claremont Hacienda, then owned in part by a newly created subsidiary of Sunwest.

According to a lawsuit filed by her daughter, Patricia Chiuppi, Ms. Nottoli had a series of falls that Ms. Chiuppi says were caused by neglect. Court documents assert that the staff of the facility failed to install pull cords, pendants, bed rails or a bed alarm even after a fall in March. Then, on the night of April 4, 2022, another fall broke Ms. Nottoli’s hip, “which ultimately led to her death on June 19, 2022,” court documents say.

Ben Voelkel, a spokesman for the Hovde campaign, said in a statement that there was “no basis for this claim.” He added: “The lawsuit fails to identify the circumstances surrounding the incident. It admits that they are unknown.”

Lisa Flint, the lawyer representing Ms. Chiuppi, declined to comment at length, saying discovery in the suit was just beginning, with a trial date set for March 25, 2025.

“The documentation from the facility showed bruising, injuries to arms, head, but no real investigation into her falls,” Ms. Flint said.

Initially, only Claremont Hacienda and its parent companies were named in the suit, but on March 25, Ms. Flint amended the complaint to name one of the place-holder defendants: Mr. Hovde’s Sunwest Bank, identified legally as one of the “owners, officers, administrators, managers and/or members” of the elder care facility.

A lawyer for Sunwest, Robert S. McWhorter, said the bank had yet to answer the lawsuit because Ms. Flint had yet to serve it the papers. He said the lawsuit was frivolous, that Sunwest should not have been named, and that the complaint does not allege direct involvement by Sunwest.

Mr. Voelkel said in a statement: “Sunwest Bank was a member of an L.L.C. that came into ownership of the facility through a foreclosure. A third party unrelated to Sunwest and the L.L.C. managed the facility. The lawsuit is meritless, which may be why the filing attorney has not actually served Sunwest and has stopped communicating with the bank.”

He also accused Ms. Flint of being a “Democrat donor,” based on a single $5 donation in 2020 to ActBlue, which consolidates political donations to Democratic candidates.

With a trial set to begin four months after the 2024 election, an elder abuse and wrongful death lawsuit in Southern California might have seemed remote to voters in Wisconsin.

But Mr. Hovde has himself drawn attention to his work in the nursing home world. Pressed by a Milwaukee television newscaster this month on his claims of “issues” in the 2020 election, Mr. Hovde replied, “Look, I do lending into the nursing home community, or used to.” And it is true: Sunwest has claimed millions of dollars in revenue from its assisted living properties, including Claremont Hacienda.

Mr. Hovde went on to cite allegations of voter fraud, appearing to suggest that residents were not in a condition to vote: “The average life expectancy in a nursing home is four to five months. How can you have, you know, the Racine County sheriff finding 100 percent of the people voting, and by the way, kids of parents, elderly parents who are dying, saying, ‘Who voted for my parent? Who did that?’”

Days later, Mr. Hovde pressed a similar point on the Guy Benson political talk show. “If you’re in a nursing home, you only have a five-, six-month life expectancy,” he said. “Almost nobody in a nursing home is at a point to vote, and you had children, adult children, showing up, saying, ‘Who voted for my 85- or 90-year-old father or mother?’”

Mr. Hovde was referring to a real dispute from the 2020 election in Wisconsin. In 2021, the Racine County Sheriff’s Office accused the State Elections Commission of improperly barring people deputized to help with absentee ballots from entering nursing homes to assist older voters. The commission had ruled that such “special voting deputies” posed too much of a health risk during the Covid-19 pandemic, given the toll the disease had already taken on assisted living facilities.

The dispute has lingered. The county sheriff, Christopher Schmaling, a Republican, said nearly a year after the 2020 election that his office received a complaint from a woman whose mother was marked as having cast a ballot even though she died before Election Day. The sheriff’s office said turnout was higher in 2020 than usual, and some nursing home residents who cast ballots had not voted since 2016 or 2012.

But Wisconsin’s overall turnout was sky-high in 2020, at 72.3 percent, and audits of the election found no widespread fraud, in nursing homes or elsewhere.

Mr. Hovde’s suggestion that “almost nobody in a nursing home is at a point to vote” has attracted considerable attention. In Wisconsin, people 65 or older make up 18 percent of the state’s population — and thus a significant voting bloc, especially since they have a high propensity to vote.

In recent days, Mr. Hovde has tried to clarify his comments. This week, he reiterated his belief that “a large percentage” of nursing home residents “are not in the mental capacity to” vote. But he added in an interview on Wisconsin radio, “I think elderly should absolutely vote.”

That might not put the matter to rest — especially since Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, known in much of the country as a Los Angeles Lakers great but remembered by Wisconsin residents of a certain age as a Milwaukee Bucks star, weighed in.

“What’s troubling here is his desire to take away the rights of people who have spent a lifetime contributing to this country based on a physical attribute: age,” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar wrote on his Substack account. He added: “Even if there was some fraud, the goal should be to uncover it, not deny everyone in nursing homes the vote.”

On April 12, the Wisconsin Democratic Party organized a protest against Mr. Hovde in Milwaukee with a small clutch of older voters, elder care workers and nursing home employees. On a windy, cool day, assisted living residents took turns at a Lucite lectern denouncing the Republican and vowing to vote against him.

“It’s clear California bank owner Eric Hovde does not care about seniors or their families,” said Arik Wolk, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.





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