SACRAMENTO — Saying a staff psychiatrist was being punished by a "kangaroo court" for exposing horrid, life-threatening conditions at the county's Hillcrest mental hospital, Assemblyman Larry Stirling has introduced legislation to expand protection for so-called government "whistle blowers."
The San Diego Republican, who worked with psychiatrist Zalman Magid last year in exposing problems at the county-run hospital, said mental health officials have punished Magid by relieving him of his medical duties and accusing him of a series of minor procedural errors.
The acting medical director of the hospital, Harold Mavritte, denied Stirling's charge Monday, saying that neither Magid's reassignment in November nor the accusations he now faces before a board of his professional peers were the result of his criticisms of the hospital and its staff.
Mavritte said, however, that hospital administrators were aware when those actions were taken that Magid had complained to the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance in April after the death of a 30-year-old patient. Stirling said county officials may also have begun, or are contemplating, punitive actions against other staff professionals at the Hillcrest facility who have complained about conditions or practices that led to patients' deaths.
Stirling said the protections in existing law for state employees who expose wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste and threats to public health and safety are inadequate. For local government employees, he added, protections are virtually non-existent.
"There is no remedy for the employees," Stirling said. "A horror movie could not be worse."
Doug Olins, an attorney representing Magid, echoed Stirling's concern.
"There is a lot of due process and protection (for government whistle blowers), but it is always after the fact," Olins said.
Stirling introduced the proposed whistle blower law last week as an amendment to a measure concerned with the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The bill, which is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the Assembly Public Employees and Retirement Committee, would make it illegal for any state or local government employee to punish with personnel actions any government worker who "filed or threatened to file" a report on problems or misdeeds within their agency. The measure would also make it illegal for government supervisors to threaten punitive actions to discourage whistle blowing.
Individual violators could face fines of $50,000.
Magid said he was glad Stirling was introducing legislation because he is certain that his reassignment and charges brought before the newly formed San Diego County In-Patient Staff Assn.--a panel of professionals formed in November by county mental health professionals to oversee standards of care in mental institutions--were attempts to punish him.
"The probability is 100% that it is because I'm a whistle blower," said Magid, who said his duties in his new post are largely clerical.
Magid said he doesn't even understand the charges he faces before the panel.
"This is very similar to what happens in communist, totalitarian countries," Magid said. "It's unbelievable."
A session in the ongoing hearing was scheduled for Monday but was delayed because one member of the panel was ill, Olins said.
Mavritte said he could not discuss the specific charges against Magid because personnel matters are confidential.
"I can categorically say that no one in this facility has . . . had any action taken against them for alleged whistle blowing. . . . We have taken a lot of action in the past to correct a lot of problems in this facility. That has necessitated some cleaning house," said Mavritte, who became acting medical director at Hillcrest in June.
"There is no doubt in my mind that there were many people (Hillcrest employees) who should not have been here. Those people are gone now," Mavritte added. "And, if there are any more, hopefully they will be gone too."
Mavritte said county officials have tried to improve care at the hospital since its many problems came to light last year.
"The more you deal with it, the more people come out and say nothing is being done. Then, when you do something, they say that people are being subjected to harassment," Mavritte said.
If county officials inquire, Mavritte said, he would not recommend that the county oppose Stirling's bill because it is "like motherhood and apple pie." To oppose it, he said, would make county officials look like "bad guys."
Since Magid complained last year about the improper administration of drugs to a patient being admitted for an overdose, the county-run hospital has been the subject of federal, state and local investigations.
In an audit requested by Stirling, the state's auditor general reported to the Legislature last year that at least three recent patient deaths "may have been preventable."