SAFE, Inc. sued Lane County, Oregon. After three weeks of testimony, the jury reached its decision on Friday, 4 June 2010. While the jury ruled against SAFE, Inc., the jury awarded Lane County no money. Here is a forwarded news release provided by SAFE, Inc. following that decision, and the authors are responsible for the content. For more information use the contact data provided.
7 June 2010
SAFE Incorporated – PRESS RELEASE AND ARTICLE
For information about this press release and article, please contact SAFE, Incorporated and David Lee, at 541-341-4928 or via email at
Justice For Mental Health Peer Providers Reaches New Lows
Lane County Takes The ‘Low Road’ By Elevating Stigma And Rumors To The Level Of Fact
After three long weeks of testimony, a Lane County jury found that SAFE, Incorporated, a mental health peer-run alternative agency, was not harmed in the closure of its Medicaid practice. It is worth noting that the same jury was excluded from hearing that the County had also retaliated by defunding of all SAFE’s other successful programs. In finding for the County however, the jury did something odd- it awarded the County ‘no money’ for the $500,000 dollars the County counterclaimed as damages.
How did this happen? First there was the jaw-dropping decision by Lane County Circuit Court Judge Lauren Holland that “no mental health peer-run organization of disabled individuals has standing to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act” and her exclusion of SAFE’s retaliation claim. Enter then, a ‘gag’ order requested by the County and granted by the Judge, that insured no public light would be cast on any controversial activities during the proceedings. SAFE was thus prevented from communicating to the larger body of mental health consumers and the public the new depths that the County’s ‘support of peer-run programs’ [sic] had sunk to. What was left, after the rulings of Judge Holland, was a case reduced to the seemingly simple issue of who breached the SAFE Medicaid contract.
Feeling it had license due to SAFE’s ‘peer-run’ status, the County defense strategy, even in the contract matter, was to dredge up everything possible to prejudice the jury. It tried to show that SAFE and its Operations Coordinator, Drake Ewbank, were criminals who defrauded Medicaid, were incompetent and deceitful, and that their tireless outreach work existed only to “drain every last dime out of the clients.” Excluded from the trial was the mass of evidence that the County had planned to close SAFE anyway, had destroyed all its other programs when it would not give up its appeal rights, and facts showing that inside Lane County HHS Administration, SAFE was regularly held up to ridicule and discriminatory comments.
David Lee, President of the SAFE Board offered his perspective on the matter. “I thought the decision was unfair, mostly because the Judge would not admit some of our important evidence…”
SAFE has appealed to Disability Rights Oregon to help resolve the still un-adjudicated claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], as it seems to run contrary to common sense to exclude organizations of disabled individuals from legal remedies under the ADA protections. Options include taking the case into Federal Court or the Oregon Court of Appeals, where the published record would guarantee a more accountable view of the judicial actions involved.
SAFE is effectively dissolving pending the summing up of its legal affairs, and exists now only in summarizing the stories and the data that were gathered in the course of its practice which, according to Mr. Ewbank and those assembling the results, show a remarkably successful and effective community mental health model designed and run by peers. It was a provision that over 13 years provided exemplary alternative care and literally saved the system thousands of dollars in acute care costs. It was at the center of the lawsuit that SAFE deserved better than to get caught up in the shabby methods evidenced most recently by Lane County’s trial work designed to smear its good work. SAFE can only hope to repair, in its legal and informational efforts, a fraction of the damage done to peers nationally and regionally by the County’s allegations, and by methods which have destroyed SAFE’s reputation, organization, and the services once enjoyed by its client base.
END PRESS RELEASE
ADDITIONAL DETAILS – Compiled from Accounts of Those Involved, Affected, And Attending
A Question Of Ethics
With the court’s blessing, the County ‘how low can you go’ and ‘no holds barred’ strategy was in evidence from the trial’s very first opening statements. Immediately, the County announced that it would show that SAFE and Drake Ewbank, its Operations Coordinator, had deceived the County on the way to committing “massive fraud,” the taking of sums not entitled to, and that the intensive and successful outreach practice SAFE had built was merely to increase the ability to bilk the County and clients out of more and more money. In sum, the County devoted all its legal resources and efforts to assassinating the character, purpose, and rationale for services of the Agency itself. In the effort to win at all costs, and arguably under the advice of County HHS director Rob Rockstroh, the County pulled out all the stops, stops that included the grotesque use of tawdry portrayals of an agency that had saved lives, served its clients well, and had survived County non payment for almost a third of its existence. This is contrasted with the County’s use of the taxpayer’s money to pursue this, as the County has accumulated costs now conservatively estimated at more than $300,000 dollars in staff and legal time, $230,000 more than it would have taken to settle or let SAFE finish the three months left on the breached contract.
Elevating Stigma And Rumors To The Level Of Absolute Fact
The trial featured an extraordinary number of sordid legal maneuvers. County employees put on a show to suggest that SAFE and its Operations Coordinator R Drake Ewbank had intentionally committed fraud, had endangered clients, regularly abused and threatened employees, stalked those employees, and advised employees to falsify clinical records for profit. This was in addition to the most outrageous allegation, that there were a number reported instances of sexual misconduct by Mr. Ewbank [this astonishing fact Director Rockstroh apparently accepted without question, apparently without any effort to establish the truth of it or notify state investigators per law]. Not stopping there, the Court allowed the County to drag out the personal expenses of Mr. Ewbank, meticulously attempting to humiliate him by forcing the public recitation of the most intimate details of a recent engagement and other graphic aspects of his private life. Repeatedly, County counsel hammered away at the supposed mercenary, fraudulent, and exploitive nature of Mr. Ewbank, and SAFE and its services. No one familiar with the agency or Mr. Ewbank would ever honestly believe this, and no one came forward to identify themselves or others with whom Mr. Ewbank had acted improperly.
Then, not just being satisfied to rest with offering a case based on character assassination and trial by sordid innuendo which Judge Holland’s rulings opened the door to, the County found three past employees, two now on the County dole, each who had personal relationships with each other and unresolved personal issues with Mr. Ewbank, and took them in unison in what was ultimately, a perjured testimony. Each recited rehearsed and altered false accounts that they had been forced by Mr. Ewbank to work without pay, commit fraud, and “drain every last dime” out of the Valia clients. These employees included one being investigated for Medicaid fraud herself, another one who had published a 46 page rant against Mr. Ewbank in a blog on a Register Guard website and which violated client privacy, and a witness who had falsely sworn to the County that SAFE insisted that he double bill thus increasing billings for services not rendered, which triggered an automatic review of SAFE by the state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Add to this a bookkeeper who provided information for the County while knowing that any impact to SAFE would impair SAFE’s ability to pursue her unauthorized removal of $2600 dollars when she exited her Valia job in September of 2009.
The court prevented SAFE from presenting documentation evidence to the jury that would show that these witnesses were less than truthful or had rehearsed their vendetta-inspired diatribes. Even financial information related to the bookkeeper’s amounts were excluded, in contrast to the wide berth that Judge Holland chose apparently to give the County in admitting all things, personal, perjured, professional, and prejudicial, relative to Mr Ewbank’s character and personal life.
Using The Public Perception
County trial counsel, finding that people with diagnoses and Mr. Ewbank, who himself has a mental health label, were an easy mark to reinforce negative stereotypes to the jury, continued to rely on the creation of a picture of hysteria and fiscal irresponsibility in the jury’s minds. This included a summation that insisted that Mr. Ewbank was a manipulative criminal who committed fraud and had refused to pay his employees so that he could use their wages to finance travel and visit adult sites on the internet. With the exception of the zero dollar award, apparently the strategy was successful. In addition, in sworn testimony, Mari Jones, a Lane County employee, with apparently no investigation or finding, was willing to offer her opinion that Mr. Ewbank, a credentialed mental health provider for 9 years, a nationally recognized presenter, and a winner of multiple national and state volunteer awards represented “a safety concern” with clients. This, in turn, made her and others force closure of the program on the basis of a flawed ‘site review’ that the County admitted they were not willing to back up with an ‘impartial’ hearing. What is missing from this and the jury’s consideration is the fact that Ms Jones had already been accused of discriminatory behavior and was asked to recuse herself just prior to her effort to close the practice.
Comments On The Case
Elizabeth Snow, Oregon State TPAC Member
Elizabeth Snow, Oregon Trauma Policy Advisory Committee member, offered her eyewitness view of the proceedings, “In the courtroom I was astounded to witness blatant discrimination and shameless bias as the Judge repeatedly forbade admission of SAFE’s documentation to the jury, while almost unconditionally accepting all documentation submitted by the county, much of it slanderous, manipulated, out of context, scrambled together at the last moment, or based upon subjective standards. Since SAFE is the plaintiff in this case, I am dismayed that the jury wasn’t allowed to have all the information necessary to make a truly informed decision. It is also troubling to me that LaneCare did not consider the health, wellbeing, and safety of those clients who were abandoned by the County’s closure of SAFE’s programs. My hope is that an impartial investigation of this case is forthcoming.”
Bambi Lee, SAFE Board Member
“I think that Lane County got over on everybody, though it was very fair that they were not awarded anything as it was us that was struggling. The County was smug in their attitudes and arrogant. I do not know how they can sleep at night knowing they have squashed the needy and the downtrodden like they did. I couldn’t do that.” Said Bambi Lee, a SAFE Board member dismayed at the outcome.
T C Dumas, PhD, Former Board and PCAT Member
T. C. [Tracey] Dumas, PhD, a person affiliated with Valia’s clinical advisory team, offered yet another aspect of some of the larger issues. “Its been obvious for many years that the current mental health system’s programs, including Lane County’s, have failed to produce true recovery. I believe SAFE / Valia was a success in this area in spite of its being operated by the ‘mentally ill.’ Other Eugene-Springfield programs should have had their contracts withdrawn due to staff behavior and non compliance and they weren’t. I’ve always questioned the sanity of those who offered the contract to such a unique program as Valia without giving it enough support before telling it to open its doors. I’m very discouraged and confused by the lies, manipulations of truth, and the cover-ups and omissions of pertinent information by County employees and a few disgruntled SAFE employees. At the end, despite the evidence, SAFE was declared guilty by reason of insanity.”
Drake Ewbank, Former Valia Operations Coordinator
Drake Ewbank, the former Operations Coordinator for Valia, SAFE’s Medicaid clinical practice, was asked about his opinion of the trial. “Like everyone else at SAFE, I am disappointed in the legal process available to us. The jury was not allowed to hear so much of what was done, and was given so limited a view of our work, our real case never really got heard. And I have no idea what the County must be thinking in this, it is apparent in the testimony that there is an unrestrained attitude of contempt and disrespect at the County for all that we have done. And rather than keep it professional and look at our results or their failings, the record is full of evidence that shows that their issues were personal and literally had nothing to do with the fitness of our services to the clients. Rather than censure Mari Jones for the multiple times that she harassed and influenced our partners in the community, our clients, employees, and the peer population looking for things she could use against us, instead the County chose to circle their wagons and stonewall any attempts to change her behavior or let her go.”
“The ridiculous fraud accusations are a good example. The County should have known that. The County does know, for instance that Valia provided more of its own monetary resources to clients and rendered more unpaid services than all of the other County providers combined. My own donated time with clients by itself was more than $35,000 dollars, which is almost half of the small amount we could have won in the lawsuit. Others that worked there were equally dedicated, often using their own time and money to help clients.”
“I also wonder if anyone at the County Commissioners’ office would be disturbed at what was disclosed about the behavior and comments of County employees and Mr. Rockstroh over the course of testifying for the trial and the depositions. Besides these sorts of disturbing statements, at some point Mr. Rockstroh even convinced the Commissioners that there was certain evidence of “SAFE misuse of public funds.” That was impossible to know when he said that, and wasn’t proven during the trial.”
“It is shocking really when you realize that the ‘peer’ agency’s conduct here looks more responsible and based in reason and facts than the actions of those who have professional credentials and an even larger responsibility to the public. We went in and told the truth, and the County basically put on people who didn’t, and we lost. What does that tell us…? Well, first it shows you how badly they wanted to end us… and maybe how much we are at a disadvantage when the system manipulates the site review results with its expert muscle, emboldens and rewards our detractors, and then uses the mentally ill label against us. Because this destroyed one of the state’s most successful peer programs, I hope at least the tremors of this loss motivates someone with integrity to get to the bottom of this and gets the County to clean up its act regarding the prejudicial activities that are in evidence in the record here. Certainly we have given up hope that HHS Director Rockstroh, Medical Director Michel Farivar, Quality Assurance Site Reviewer Mari Jones, or Marcia Johnson of County HHS Administration are the persons who are going to address this, or are going to demand facts instead of rumors. Their comments, attitudes, and actions described in the court record, were chillingly prejudiced and disdainful of the peer model and our work. They are utterly willing to accept that myself and persons with mental health labels were and are guilty of the most heinous behavior, when all the time having the access, statistics, records, and ability to investigate and know that that was absolutely not true. Instead they used those unproven allegations to close us. They had a pattern of regularly elevating stigma and rumor to the level of absolute fact. It is as if they wanted to believe those things. The conduct of the trial is actually just one more episode in a history of this kind of County HHS ‘smear type’ behaviors, which I would find juvenile if the consequences to our clients were not so dire.”
He continued, “They’ve never cared enough to interview our clients, or look at our models or data, or credited us for the effectiveness of our services or our exemplary safety record, instead relying on disputable paperwork reviews and what they should have known were false allegations about my behavior as the major basis for the reason for SAFE’s closure. This sort of unilateral action creates an environment of fear amongst all those contracted under the County system. My belief is that this has no place in a progressive health system and actually, no place in Eugene, which is known for its transparent, inclusive, and egalitarian institutions.”