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Journalists denied access to nurse at public hearing

County employee was appealing suspension from King-Harbor Hospital at a civil service proceeding.

April 29, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County civil service employees last week physically blocked Los Angeles Times journalists from interviewing and photographing a county nurse as she appealed her suspension from Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital at a public hearing.

When Times photographer Francine Orr tried to snap a picture of Perpetua Okoh before the proceedings began, the nurse was moved by county hearing officer Judy Gust to a nearby room where she could hear the session but not be seen by the public.

According to civil service rules, a person making a disciplinary appeal must be at the hearing or the appeal is automatically dropped.

Times reporter Garrett Therolf said that Larry Crocker, director of the county Civil Service Commission, told him the nurse was allowed to leave the hearing room because she did not want to be photographed.

Okoh was appealing a 20-day suspension handed down by her superiors for failing to attend to her duties at the Willowbrook hospital -- then known as Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center -- and for falsifying medical records, among other things.

No decision was made on her appeal during the Thursday hearing; the matter was continued to a later date.

King/Drew ended inpatient services last summer after years of medical accreditation problems and failed attempts to reform the troubled facility.

Halvor Melom, principal deputy county counsel, said civil service rules do not cover situations such as the one that unfolded last week.

Melom, who advises the county Civil Service Commission, said he suggested to commission officials that they consider guidelines used by judges in Los Angeles County Superior Court when deciding whether to allow photographers or broadcasters, in order to avoid interfering with the proceedings.

"It has to be a case-by-case situation," Melom said, adding: "These are public hearings. The media is welcome to attend" except in cases involving peace officers.

After the hearing, civil service officials let Okoh remain in the office for more than an hour, telling Orr at one point that she had left. Office employees eventually escorted Okoh down a public hallway as she shielded her face with a jacket. One of the workers physically prevented Therolf and Orr from following them to an elevator used by county employees and journalists.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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