Originally created 01/03/01

Worker at MCG files suit



A Medical College of Georgia employee who blew the whistle on allegedly misspent Medicaid funds is suing the Board of Regents and a top MCG official, claiming she has been retaliated against.

Gail Hambrick, formerly Gail Woods, was the project manager for the $1.4 million Family Connection Research Center Project at MCG beginning in July 1997. She claims in the lawsuit she questioned certain purchases, such as that of an expensive Web site that may never have gone online, and butted heads with those running the project over how the money was spent. In March 1998, Ms. Hambrick said, she contacted the Georgia Attorney General's State Health Care Fraud Control Unit, which began an investigation.

Though no criminal charges arose, Senior Assistant Attorney General Charles Richards issued a report in which he questioned many purchases and identified about $74,000 in Indigent Care Trust Fund money that he suggested should be repaid. The questionable expenditures ranged from for a banquet to the Web site to funding a puppet show for children.

For speaking up, Ms. Hambrick claims in her lawsuit, she "was retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment."

The dispute with MCG was eventually settled by mediation, first in February 1999 and then again May 11, 1999, after Ms. Hambrick believed the first agreement was not being followed.

The May agreement spelled out that for two years she would be given a position as research project manager working for three researchers in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior, said Barry Goldstein, senior vice president for academic affairs at MCG. Her office, however, would be located at the uptown division of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers.

In the suit, Ms. Hambrick says the job was a sham with no real duties.

"Right now, she has a job making $50,000 a year with no duties," said Pat Nelson, Ms. Hambrick's attorney. The agreement spelled out duties and it was up to the researchers to utilize Ms. Hambrick, Dr. Goldstein said.

"They were responsible for giving her work to do," Dr. Goldstein said. "If they didn't give her work to do, she never complained to me about it."

In the lawsuit, Ms. Hambrick claims she tried to get MCG officials to talk to her about another position but they would not meet with her. MCG has not been served a copy of the suit and could not respond to specifics, said Andrew Newton, associate legal adviser.

"But in general, no, we have not retaliated against her. Yes, we believe we have lived up to the agreement," Mr. Newton said.

Ms. Hambrick's job will not be funded after the agreement expires in May and "at that point, she'll have no job at all," Mr. Nelson said. In a tight job market, Ms. Hambrick would like to continue at MCG to support her family, Mr. Nelson said.

The suit names Dr. Goldstein, who was Ms. Hambrick's contact person with MCG.

Suing officials and, by extension, the school is a tactic Mr. Nelson employed in the Jan Kemp case at the University of Georgia in the 1980s, he said.

"For years and especially recently, government institutions are immune from suit directly," Mr. Nelson said.

Dr. Goldstein said the school has lived up to the agreement and has done nothing wrong.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.