Originally created 02/23/03

Whistle-blower speaks out



It's not that Sharon Haire isn't concerned about her future after getting fired last week from an Augusta mental health center. It's just that she has 5,000 people she is more worried about.

Mrs. Haire, the former deputy director for clinical services at Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia, was fired after she filed a lawsuit against the center and its board, claiming she was being demoted and harassed because she is a whistle-blower. Mrs. Haire revealed in her lawsuit that she was the author of a two-page unsigned letter that alleged corruption and cronyism at the Augusta center. The letter sparked investigations by state agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the lawsuit.

Mrs. Haire has been hurt, but it is the people who use the center who could be hurt the most, she said.

"The real victims here are the clients, the people in the seven counties (around Augusta) - and there are over 5,000 of them - that are diagnosed with mental illness, mental retardation and substance abuse," Mrs. Haire said. "The system in Georgia is at a point where there's no oversight and they have no advocacy. I felt like the money at the center was being managed inappropriately."

Much of the allegations centered on millions of dollars in contracts to vendors who had links to friends of the center's management. That might already have had a dire impact on the center, Mrs. Haire said.

"(Acting Director) Phil Horton told us last Tuesday that the center is going to be broke in April," Mrs. Haire said. "The punch line is, here is money being taken out of the system, money that was meant to be spent on our most helpless citizens."

Executive Director Mike Brockman and Administrative Manager Jim Points have been on paid leave since the center's board received the letter and voted to begin an inquiry last month. That doesn't seem fair either, Mrs. Haire said.

"(Mr. Brockman) and (Mr. Points) and all the people that had the contracts that are getting the money will get a check next week, but I won't. I was fired," she said. Instead, she said, she has spent $5,000 in legal fees just getting to this point.

"They fire you so you don't have any resources. They discredit you so that nobody will take your side, and then they say, 'If you can afford it, sue us. Good luck,"' Mrs. Haire said.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Investigative Services and Office of Audits are investigating her allegations, yet no one has spoken to her, she said. The aftermath of her decision to write the letter has left her relying on faith to get her through.

"At first, I was really, really scared," she said. "I just felt hopeless. I said, 'What am I going to do? I'm a cancer survivor. I have no health insurance. I'm three years from retirement. What am I going to live on?' But then I did like I did with all the trials that God has given me. I turned it over and asked him to help me. ... Now I just feel really peaceful."

She and her husband, Edward, have put their house up for sale and will be leaving the area, leaving behind the mess that officials are still trying to sort out.

"I just pray that somebody will take up the torch for the clients," Mrs. Haire said. "I pray that somebody will back up the board members who are really trying to do the right thing. And I hope that all of the truth, whatever it is, comes out and that there are real consequences for each person's role in it."

SHARON HAIRE

AGE: 54

EDUCATION: Master's degree in special education administration from Florida State University

EXPERIENCE: Administrator of Southwestern State Hospital in Bainbridge, 15 years; developmental disabilities division chief at Gracewood; training program administrator for Gracewood and Georgia Regional Hospital; deputy director for clinical services at Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia

QUOTE: "You expect corruption maybe in a big company. You don't expect people to steal from the mentally ill, the most vulnerable population. I couldn't conceive that, first of all, that there was enough money there to do it, and second, that the system would let it happen."

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