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Co-worker's return after 169 days behind bars shocks hospital staff

Harbor-UCLA surgical technician Norris Smith was convicted of shooting into a car. Last week he was back at work, despite the county's efforts to crack down on employees with criminal records.

September 17, 2009|Kimi Yoshino

A surgical technician convicted of firing a gun into an occupied car was back on the job last week at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, just days after being released from jail, despite vows by Los Angeles County officials to crack down on medical personnel with criminal records.

Norris Smith, 53, had spent 169 days behind bars before pleading no contest to the felony charge Aug. 26. In exchange for the plea, a five-year state prison sentence was suspended. He was placed on probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment and abstain from alcohol, according to court records. Three other felony charges were dismissed.

Smith's return to work at a county hospital shocked colleagues, who said they have been concerned about his behavior since 2005, when he was suspended after threatening a doctor. He was arrested by Long Beach police in 2004 on suspicion of assault with a firearm, a charge prosecutors declined to pursue.

His case raised new questions about whether adequate measures are in place to screen county employees for criminal conduct.

Harbor-UCLA officials declined to comment on Smith's employment, calling it a "personnel matter." His August conviction was unrelated to any workplace issues.

Michael Wilson, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said Smith is currently employed, earning an annual salary of about $45,000. But he declined additional comment, saying that the issue is under "administrative investigation."

Although Smith returned to work at the hospital for at least a couple of days last week, his defense attorney, Christopher Darden, said Wednesday that he is now on administrative leave.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the hospital campus, said there are no provisions in place to allow the county to run criminal background checks on longtime employees who remain in the same job.

"The matter of persons in the county's employ who have not been [given criminal background checks] and are working in sensitive positions at hospitals . . . has to be corrected," he said. "That is not a good personnel policy and practice."

Since 1999, the county has required that all employees must undergo criminal background checks when they are hired or receive new assignments. But county health officials say veterans like Smith, a 29-year employee, fall outside those rules.

Last year, The Times reported that 152 employees at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Medical Center -- more than 10% of those checked -- had criminal records. Their criminal histories came to light only after the hospital was shuttered and workers were eligible for new background checks as they were transferred to other facilities.

County officials have repeatedly declined to provide the names of those employees, their job descriptions or the types of crimes involved, beyond saying that they were, at a minimum, serious misdemeanors.

Although a criminal history does not preclude employment, county policy dictates that the crime should not interfere with the job and that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. A convicted bank robber, for example, would not be allowed to hold a job as a cashier.

Smith declined comment on the advice of his attorney. Darden said he would not address issues related to Smith's employment but disputed allegations that Smith posed a threat to others.

Darden described Smith's 2004 arrest, which predated his work suspension, as a family dispute.

And he said, referring to the November 2008 shooting that led to Smith's conviction, that his client had not gone out "looking for trouble." "This was a situation where people came to his house at almost midnight and created, in his mind, what was a physical threat to his physical safety," said Darden, adding that no one was hurt. "I strenuously object to the notion that he's a danger to anybody. He does not have a violent personality."

At Harbor-UCLA, one staff member said Smith's reappearance caused an uproar among the nursing and anesthesiology staffs. The employee, a nurse anesthetist, spoke to The Times on the condition that he not be named out of concern for his safety.

More than three years ago, Smith was suspended without pay for 20 days after allegations that he had threatened a female doctor. County personnel records, which became public when Smith appealed his suspension to the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, detail his alleged threats.

According to the records, in December 2005 Smith came to work on his day off to demand that the female doctor explain why she had hung up on him earlier that day.

Two doctors present during the incident filed statements describing Smith as belligerent and smelling of alcohol. He repeatedly called the doctor he was confronting a "bitch," hurled racial insults at the other doctors and said he was going to "kick [the doctor's] ass," the records said. Security escorted Smith out of the building.

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