Civic activist Roger Creighton, concerned that city employees may be misusing health benefits, last week sued the city to obtain copies of employee insurance records.
Creighton, who has filed several suits against the city on other matters, asked a Torrance Superior Court judge to order the city to release the names of employees and their dependents who are enrolled in the city's dental and health insurance programs.
Creighton has sought the information on several occasions, but City Atty. James P. Lough has refused to release the records, saying that to do so would be an invasion of privacy.
"The employees of the city have a right to be protected from requests regarding their family members and insurance requirements," Lough said. "If they have information about a particular employee, then let them bring it up. But they are asking for all employees, and that to me is a fishing expedition."
Creighton charges in his suit that the request is "pertinent to a legitimate inquiry into the expenditure of public funds" because of two recent incidents involving the possible misuse of insurance benefits by city employees.
One occurred last February, when it was disclosed that City Councilman Jack Wood had listed his girlfriend as a dependent on the city's health and dental insurance plans, according to correspondence included in the suit. The insurance programs permit employees to list only legally married spouses and dependent children.
Wood, who later removed the woman from the program, said he did not know he was acting improperly when he enrolled her, the documents said. Wood declined to comment on the issue last week.
In a second example, the suit refers to an employee, whom it does not name, who enrolled her "alleged spouse" as a dependent on the insurance policies. The suit states that the employee has listed herself as an "unmarried woman" and the man as an "unmarried man" on other legal documents. The woman has refused to provide proof of the marriage, the suit states.
Personnel Director Carolyn Smith, whom Creighton identified in an interview as the employee mentioned in the suit, acknowledged that she and James Brisson have listed themselves as unmarried on various legal documents, but she said they are married and denied any wrongdoing.
Smith said she does not use her married name or her marital status on various financial and legal documents so she can maintain credit in her own name. She said her attorney has advised her that the practice is legal.
"If they had me listed any different, they would not be able to verify my credit," she said. "None of my credit is based on being married. I was very adamant that I keep my own."
Smith has declined a request by Creighton that she provide him with proof of her marriage to Brisson. "I just feel it is my personal business," she said. "I have offered to show my marriage certificate to my boss, but he has not requested it." Smith, who oversees employee benefits, said the city pays about $100 a month for Brisson's coverage.
City Manager Gregory Meyer confirmed that he has not requested any proof from Smith, saying that all city employees, including Smith, have completed forms stating that their dependents are legitimately enrolled in the insurance plans. Meyer said all employees were required to file the forms in February following the incident involving Wood's girlfriend.
"I have received no complaint of impropriety from anyone except the newspapers," Meyer said.
Evidence of Concern
Lough said the city would consider releasing information about an individual employee if Creighton provided evidence that there were legitimate concerns about the actions or expenditures of the employee.
"That would take it out of the privacy area and make it a public funds issue," Lough said. "But I am not a mind reader. They would have to make specific requests in those cases."
In a letter to Lough, however, Kathryn Dunaway, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on Creighton's behalf, said the request for information about all employees is justified in light of the Wood incident.
Wood "was advised that this was proper by another employee of the city," Dunaway wrote. "Since there may be other employees in a similar situation, the public is entitled to discover what funds the city used to pay for unauthorized dependents."
2 Other Suits Pending
Creighton, 47, an outspoken critic of the Hermosa city government, has two other suits pending against the city. They involve a dispute over a proposal to build a hotel on the Strand and a decision by the City Council to donate an ambulance to Hermosa Beach's sister city in Mexico.
"The public has the right to see the justification for the spending of our tax dollars," said Creighton, an operations manager at a firm in Los Angeles. "Whatever it takes, we have to get this resolved."