FILE - NJ Steve Sweeney 3-25-2019

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (left) speaks to reporters March 25, 2019 in Trenton, N.J.

(The Center Square) – New Jersey Senate Republicans are again requesting an investigation into the state’s COVID-19 response. The call follows the disclosure of a $53 million settlement with the families of 119 veterans who died from COVID while in the care of state veterans’ homes.

On Tuesday, all 15 members of the Senate Republican Caucus signed a letter to Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, calling for a select committee with subpoena powers.

In the letter, Republicans say Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, “has never explained the rationale of decisions during the pandemic that led to the loss of almost 10,000 vulnerable seniors.”

“...We need to understand where these taxpayer dollars are coming from, and how the Governor justified the expenditure without including the Legislature,” the lawmakers wrote. “Specifically, are federal coronavirus funds, or some other funds, expected to be used for the settlement?”

Alyana Alfaro Post, a press secretary for Murphy, told The Center Square the governor’s office had no comment on the request. The governor’s office did not announce the settlement, but news leaked during the Christmas holiday period, and the office has declined to provide an attributable, on-the-record statement about the settlement.

“This appears to be an orchestrated scheme designed to avoid scrutiny and shield the Governor from answering crucial questions during the holiday news void,” the lawmakers wrote. “That settlement, and everything that led up to it, demands explanation, and the silence from the front office is unacceptable but not surprising.”

On March 31, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Health issued a directive barring nursing homes from turning away patients who tested positive for COVID-19. The mandate, which was subsequently rescinded, mirrored one issued in New York.

Of New Jersey’s more than 26,000 confirmed COVID deaths, more than 8,000 were reported in long-term care facilities in the state.

According to state numbers, New Jersey’s three veterans’ homes – in Menlo Park, Paramus and Vineland – have reported 255 COVID deaths. In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil-rights investigation into how veterans’ homes handled the COVID outbreak.

“The Governor’s Administration has maintained all along that their instructions to the long-term care facilities were not at fault, yet the monetary settlement would suggest otherwise,” Republicans wrote.

New Jersey Republicans have made a half dozen requests for a Senate select committee, starting with a letter they sent on May 13, 2020. Murphy is in Costa Rica and was expected to return on Thursday.

Sweeney is about to depart the state Senate following his shocking November loss to a political newcomer. Assembly Democrats and Senate Democrats declined a request for comment from The Center Square.