Originally created 02/19/03

Employee sues health facility



The author of a once-anonymous letter that sparked state and federal investigations at an Augusta mental health institution filed suit Tuesday, saying she is being demoted and harassed.

Sharon Haire also said she had been told by the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia that she would be fired Friday.

Mrs. Haire, one of the center's top administrators, had been seeking a restraining order in Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court to prevent center officials from cutting her salary by $15,000 beginning Thursday. That motion was denied by Superior Court Judge Albert Pickett, who assured Mrs. Haire's attorney, James Trotter, that back pay would be forthcoming and that her retirement would not be diminished if she prevailed.

After the hearing, though, Mrs. Haire, who was traveling out of town, said she called back to the office, where acting Director Philip Horton told her she would be fired Friday, Mr. Trotter said.

"We don't know what the basis is, or the alleged basis," Mr. Trotter said. Earlier, he said their fear was the center was building a case for termination.

"If you fire somebody or take adverse action because they are a whistle-blower, you're not going to tell them that," Mr. Trotter said. "You're going to come up with other reasons."

The Community Service Board of East Central Georgia has scheduled a meeting for tonight that will include a closed session to discuss personnel and legal matters. Board attorney John West confirmed after the court hearing that the meeting was called to discuss Mrs. Haire. Mr. West also informed Judge Pickett that "there may well be additional adverse actions against Ms. Haire."

From the day she was hired in July 2001, Mrs. Haire said in her lawsuit, she "observed extensive fraud and corruption in the organization."

"The fraud involved the Community Mental Health Center's financial operations and contractual relationships with friends and business partners of directors of the mental health center," the suit stated.

She finally wrote a two-page, anonymous letter outlining her allegations of corruption and cronyism and sent it to Nancy Williamson, the chairwoman of the Community Service Board of East Central Georgia, which oversees the center. The board met in closed session Jan. 12 and authorized Dr. Williamson to pursue an audit and investigation of the charges. Two officials named in the letter, Executive Director Mike Brockman and Administrative Manager Jim Points, were placed on paid leave.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Investigative Services and Office of Audits is now investigating, as is the State Health Care Fraud Control Unit, which includes elements of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state attorney general's office.

The lawsuit said the center also is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"We just don't confirm or deny, one way or the other," said Jeff Holmes, the FBI spokesman for the Atlanta division.

Things began to turn worse for Mrs. Haire after she admitted to Dr. Williamson that she had written the letter, according to the lawsuit. Mrs. Haire, a 30-year state employee, was demoted from deputy director for Clinical Services to Administrative and Staff Service director, "a position with almost no duties or responsibilities," the lawsuit states. Mr. Horton told her Feb. 5 that her salary was being cut.

The reason given for the demotion was a negative review that she had given another employee, Carroll Foster, last year. Mrs. Haire contends that she did not agree with the rating but that Mr. Brockman forced her to give it.

Reach Tom Corwin or Sylvia Cooper at (706) 724-0851.