The county's health director has recommended firing three employees of the pathology lab at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center--including one doctor who formerly oversaw its troubled blood bank--as part of a wide-ranging investigation into improper activities by public hospital employees.
The proposed firings, disclosed in confidential Health Services Department documents, are the strongest actions to date stemming from a host of investigations launched after a series of Times articles on county doctors who are allegedly shortchanging taxpayers by moonlighting excessively at private practices and other jobs.
According to the documents, former blood bank chief Dr. William Temple paid two hospital employees who were on county time and using county equipment to perform work for a private lab with which he had a personal financial interest. Temple, a pathologist, is believed to have paid the two employees about $50 each a month to help him conduct personal pathology business over the past 1 1/2 years.
County health Director Mark Finucane has recommended firing Temple and the two lab technicians. "The misuse and abuse of county resources is a serious violation of the public's trust, and I do not intend to tolerate this behavior on the part of any departmental employee," Finucane wrote in a report to county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes the hospital.
Finucane could not be reached for comment.
In the documents, Finucane said he has instructed health department and King/Drew officials "to take immediate action to discharge the involved employees from county service." He also instructed the officials to "pursue reimbursement for all inappropriately expended county resources."
County employees can appeal dismissals to the Civil Service Commission.
King/Drew's chief operating officer, Randall Foster, said that all those who work in the pathology lab are "under review."
The chief of the pathology lab, Dr. Elias Amador, and Dr. Richard Siegler have been transferred to another hospital while health department investigators probe allegations that they also used the county lab to conduct personal pathology business, according to the documents obtained by The Times.
Although health department officials had little comment, one top King/Drew official confirmed that Temple, Amador and Siegler have been transferred out of the pathology lab, which oversees the blood bank and runs other important functions for the hospital.
Temple, who makes more than $100,000 a year from the county, did not return repeated calls for comment, and hospital officials would not disclose whether he has been fired. "He has been advised of the [investigation's] findings," Foster said. "He is not on active duty is the best way to put it."
Amador and Siegler have been transferred to County-USC Medical Center "during the time we are investigating the department of pathology," Foster said. "I'm not at liberty to speak about the details because it is not yet complete. It is ongoing and it involves other people, various people in the department of pathology."
Amador denied any wrongdoing Thursday in an interview. "Nobody has told me why I was transferred," he said.
His lawyer, Rees Lloyd, said that "to the best of my knowledge this man is absolutely clean. He has no private practice. He is being scapegoated."
In the memo to Burke, Finucane cited investigators who concluded that "preliminary evidence supports allegations that Dr. Amador is also utilizing county resources to prepare and analyze specimens for non-county patients."
Siegler could not be reached for comment. In the memo, Finucane wrote that Siegler "has been implicated in a number of [similar] allegations . . . [but] evidence gathered to date has not substantiated any wrongdoing by Dr. Siegler."
Fred Leaf, chief of investigations for the health department, said probes have been launched at all county health facilities. "Investigations of misuse of county resources are being taken very seriously," Leaf said.
Finucane said in a recent interview that he was appalled by Times stories about how few county doctors suspected of improper and excessive moonlighting had ever been severely disciplined. He took over in January after heading the Contra Costa County Health Department.
County rules allow doctors to work 24 hours a week in outside employment. But health officials said it is against regulations--and potentially illegal--for doctors and other employees to use county resources such as staff, equipment and time, to conduct business unrelated to the county.
The allegations have raised questions about the blood bank at King/Drew, which has been plagued in recent years by long-standing problems that ultimately led to two patients receiving blood that had tested positive in 1994 for the AIDS virus.
One of those patients, a mother of three who had gone to King/Drew for a routine surgical procedure, has since been diagnosed as having AIDS. In the ensuing investigations, Temple told county officials that the blood bank was too hampered by under-staffing and an overwhelming workload to function properly.
In a 1995 memo to his supervisors, Temple said he was not to blame for the blood bank problems because he had been given "an inordinate amount of responsibility" and had to rely on his staff to identify and correct them.
Some time after the June 1994 incident, Temple was suspended for 30 days and later was demoted to a lesser position within the pathology department. Health investigators are trying to determine whether Temple's alleged use of county time and employees for his private lab work occurred while he was running the blood bank.
"If they were doing this [outside] work, what work weren't they doing?" asked one health official, who did not want to be named.