A top Los Angeles County health administrator fired last month for lying about his academic credentials is fighting his dismissal on the grounds that others in the department have known about his lack of education for years and still helped him get promotions.
Assistant Health Services Director Walter Gray of Lake View Terrace was fired from his post as director of the public hospital system after county officials said an investigation found that he had falsified resumes and job applications.
Gray, a 33-year health department veteran, had won several promotions--including head of High Desert Hospital in the Antelope Valley--and ultimately became a top contender for the job of director, by saying he had a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in business administration. In fact, he has only graduated from high school, according to county documents.
But in a May 13 letter to the county Civil Service Commission, Gray's lawyer said her client told Roy Fleischman, then the chief of staff for hospitals, about his lack of academic credentials in 1990, one month after Gray was promoted to director of the county's High Desert Hospital.
"Mr. Gray was told not to worry about it and advised to continue his educational pursuits," lawyer Diane Marchant said, noting that none of the jobs Gray has held since 1990 specifically required a college degree. That "departmental acquiescence" means that Gray cannot be fired now, she said.
The contentions--Gray's first response since Health Director Mark Finucane fired him--will form the centerpiece of his defense when the Civil Service Commission decides whether to uphold the dismissal. Gray is expected to go before the commissioners as early as next month, seeking a hearing.
Gray, who had no comment, also has filed a claim against the county, the required precursor to a lawsuit he expects to file for wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy, Marchant said. In his claim, Gray contends that Finucane publicly discussed confidential personnel matters and caused him lost wages, pain, suffering, humiliation and emotional distress.
Finucane declined comment, referring calls to his chief of human resources, Alan Knauss.
"Walter is entitled to his views, and I'm sure that they will be presented when the case gets to the commission," said Knauss. "We believe we have a good case. If the case gets to hearing, we will present our case, and we believe we'll prevail."
In an interview, Fleischman confirmed that he talked with Gray in 1990 about his lack of college credentials but could not remember the details. "He did say he was concerned, that he had said he had a bachelor's degree and that he did not have the degree," said Fleischman, who retired last year. "Walter was doing a very good job, and my thoughts were, why pour salt on an old wound?
"I minimized it in my own mind," Fleischman said. "Whether I should have done that or not I don't know. It may have been an error. I'm not infallible."
Gray alleges in county documents that others in the department helped him obtain at least one of his several promotions since 1990 by writing job specifications that left out requirements for certain levels of education. When Gray was applying for his job as assistant health director in 1994, the specifications requiring a bachelor's degree were dropped "in order to ensure the primary applicant, Walter Gray, would be eligible," said Marchant, quoting from a health department investigative report into the incident.
Marchant said one employee even wrote Gray a memo saying that the department "wants to safeguard against excluding you when they write the exam criteria." Gray won the promotion.
"Since the department knew that Mr. Gray had no college degrees, it was incumbent on the department to take disciplinary action at that time, if they felt disciplinary action was warranted for misrepresentation of his educational credentials," Marchant wrote. "Because the department did not exercise the 'right' [to discharge Gray] at that point . . . the department has 'waived' the right to discharge."
Marchant had no comment on whether Gray continued to submit resumes and job applications with falsified academic credentials, as the department claims, after admitting in 1990 that he never earned them.
Documents submitted to the Civil Service Commission disclose Finucane's reasons for firing Gray. "Through dishonesty you have reached a position where you are involved in decision making at the highest levels and are required to represent the department in a wide variety of settings," Finucane wrote Gray on April 30, just months after coming to Los Angeles to take over the embattled department. "Your dishonesty undermines the credibility of the department in its interactions with the work force, other public agencies and the public at large."