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King-Harbor to fire 19 over criminal records

Officials say 45 more will be disciplined. A similar situation may have occurred in other county health jobs.

October 29, 2008|Garrett Therolf | Therolf is a Times staff writer.

At least 19 Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital employees will be fired and 45 others disciplined after a breakdown in vetting allowed scores of people with criminal records to remain on staff even after background checks indicated their past crimes, Los Angeles County officials said Tuesday.

The move to rid the staff of the most serious criminal offenders came as the interim director of the Department of Health Services acknowledged for the first time that failures by the human resources bureau overseeing the county's 17,000 health service workers may extend well beyond King-Harbor.

John Schunhoff, under questioning by Los Angeles County supervisors, said it was possible that many workers at the county's other public hospitals and clinics could be employed despite disqualifying criminal offenses.

"I don't think that any of us can guarantee you that those at the other facilities were treated appropriately by the human resources staff," Schunhoff said at Tuesday's board meeting. "What's to tell me that you aren't going to be up here in six months telling me that we have a lawsuit from a nurse at County-USC hospital who says she was raped by a chronic rapist who should have been eliminated but wasn't?" Supervisor Gloria Molina asked.

Schunhoff did not respond.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich asked county staffers to return in two weeks to report on what can be done to ensure that criminal histories have been properly tracked and evaluated throughout all county departments -- a request that may prove difficult given restrictions on when criminal background checks may be performed.

The move to fire the King-Harbor workers came only after months of questions about why Department of Health Services officials were slow to act on news that its employees had committed serious crimes.

A relatively complete review of King-Harbor employees was only possible because 1,356 of the 1,600 people on staff had their backgrounds examined last year. Those checks were made as the hospital was forced to shut down after federal regulators said it had failed to meet minimum standards for patient care.

As the county downsized the facility, keeping only clinic services open, officials promised to "wipe the slate clean" of problem employees at the long-troubled site. At that time, many of the hospital's employees were being considered for transfers to other jobs throughout the county, clearing the way for new background checks.

In July, The Times reported that at least 22 employees were still on staff or working at other county hospitals, despite significant disciplinary histories. County officials launched a review that week and learned that they had received reports from the California attorney general over the last year showing that 152 King-Harbor employees had serious criminal records and that little had been done to remove any of them.

In the weeks since those numbers were made public, the county has steadfastly refused to release full information about the criminal histories in response to public records requests by The Times.

Over the summer, the county brought in an outside "strike team" of human resources experts to review the criminal histories of the employees. They found that in 87 cases, the Department of Heath Services improperly determined that the crime had no bearing on an employee's ability to perform a job.

Those findings were presented to the board Tuesday. The team recommended 19 firings and 45 disciplinary actions ranging from a letter of warning to a 30-day suspension. Schunhoff said he would carry out the recommendations.

Meanwhile, Molina has pushed to establish an independent watchdog over the Department of Health Services and her spokeswoman, Roxane Marquez, said supervisors might vote on the idea next month.

"The monitor must be independent, provide real, objective information and create a culture of transparency," Marquez said.

Schunhoff said a complete review of county health employees would be difficult.

In many cases, records of employees' criminal histories have been lost or destroyed, he said in an interview. In most cases, that data would be difficult to reacquire because county policy allows managers to obtain criminal histories of employees from a state database only when they are hired, transferred or promoted, he said.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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