Originally created 06/27/04

Suspicions began at Grady hospital



ATLANTA - The federal investigation that led to last week's 142-count indictment of former state Sen. Charles Walker, his daughter and companies may have begun with Joyce Harris' suspicions that using Mr. Walker's company was wasting taxpayers' money.

Mr. Walker, who is running in July's Democratic primary for a chance to win his old seat back, has repeatedly maintained his innocence of all charges.

In 1995, Ms. Harris was the head of personnel at the largest hospital in the South, Grady Health System. Her boss had told her she must employ temps from Mr. Walker's Georgia Personnel Services because doing so was supposed to be cheaper than using other agencies or in-house temporary staff. But the figures Ms. Harris tallied showed using Mr. Walker's company was the most expensive option.

"You know, when I thought about that, something must be wrong for the CEO to think he was saving us money," Ms. Harris said. "I wasn't sure what it was, but I wasn't the only one in Human Resources feeling suspicious."

Mr. Walker often came by Ms. Harris' office during the next few years to complain she wasn't hiring enough of his temps.

Ms. Harris argued with Mr. Walker and with Ed Renfod, Grady's CEO at the time. She believes she was fired over it in November 1998.

In November 1999, she talked with an Atlanta television reporter, publicly accusing Mr. Walker of abusing his power as Senate majority leader. She alleged that he had held up passage of a 1995 Medicaid funding bill that was critical to Grady until the hospital agreed to do business with him, and the possibility that he could do it again ensured he would remain a favored vendor.

That interview was the first pebble tossed over the cliff. Others unhappy with how things were run at Grady were emboldened by seeing it.

In March, 2000, state Sen. David Scott, a Democrat from Atlanta who has since won a seat in Congress, delivered a blistering denunciation of Mr. Walker and his Grady deal during a speech in the Senate, shocking legislative veterans with its accusations.

Next was Dr. Sam Newcom, an oncologist who ended up getting fired by the hospital over, he said, his complaints about lax patient care. He filed an official complaint against Mr. Walker with the State Ethics Commission in 2001, which resulted in the agency's largest fine levied against an elected official the next year.

Of the many allegations that had been levied against Mr. Walker during his years in office, that fine represented the first to stick. News reports about the fine encouraged others to come forward.

The momentum for many of the pebbles came from a group of Grady whistle-blowers that met regularly to encourage one another to keep chipping away at the many things they saw wrong with the institution. And the deal with Mr. Walker looked blatant enough to attract the interest of investigators.

"The pioneer whistle-blower's rock of allegations has to turn into a landslide of allegations," said Tom Devine, the legal director for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project.

Mr. Devine, who has worked with hundreds of whistle-blowers and began advising the Grady group about four years ago, said corruption investigations tend to follow a pattern.

First, they usually take many years to convince investigators even to begin a probe. Prosecutors are usually so swamped, he said, that they are reluctant to follow up on allegations unless there has been a major, public disaster.

"Actually, it's a little bit steeper hill if the alleged wrongdoer is a public official," he said.

Second, he warns whistle-blowers that their lives will be changed, which is why he suggests they band together for mutual support. Many at Grady have reported retaliation and intimidation. They are even offering a reward for information about who might have poisoned one of the group, though the hospital denies any responsibility.

And third, Mr. Devine notes that often the formal indictments are for crimes the police discovered on their own rather than what the whistle-blowers alleged. He said investigators feel more comfortable with the evidence and witnesses they uncover themselves than with those given to them by a third party. That's why isolated crimes are less likely to be prosecuted than a pattern of corruption.

"We view the initial allegations as the catalyst for broader investigations that will make a difference," Mr. Devine said.

The Grady whistle-blowers gave evidence to various state and federal agencies, officeholders, reporters and even political candidates over the years.

Sen. Don Cheeks, at the time an Augusta Democrat like Mr. Walker, was contacted by several people who said they had information on misdeeds.

"I keep telling them I didn't need to be told what they were talking about," said Mr. Cheeks, who has since switched to the Republican Party. "I told them to contact the GBI and the FBI."

They got similar responses from nearly everyone they met with. Then in early May 2003, they saw a glimmer of possibility when members of the Grady group testified before a federal grand jury in Savannah, even if they didn't know exactly when indictments might be handed down or what they would entail. Their excitement built later that month when the FBI raided Mr. Walker's office and newspaper.

When the indictments were released by a federal grand jury in Savannah last week, there were congratulations all around, even though some members of the group were no longer in Atlanta. Yet, the scope of the 142 counts against Mr. Walker and his co-defendants surprised Ms. Harris. They included allegations he cheated advertisers in his newspaper, lied on his taxes and bilked donors to a charity football game.

"I believe what really got the ball running on this was the story on TV and Newcom before Ethics," she said. "I didn't realize there was so much involved."

Ms. Harris' life has changed. She lost a wrongful-discharge lawsuit against Grady and has been unemployed since, except for a few freelance projects. She moved from the Atlanta area and doesn't want to say where out of fear.

"It is a high price to pay, but if you ask me if I'd do it over again, I'd say yes," she said, "only I would have done it sooner."

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.