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Official Says He Is Victim of Smear Tactics

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Ventura County supervisors deliberate over his future, embattled mental health Director David Gudeman says he is the victim of a smear campaign and is being made a scapegoat for the failures of others.

In a memo released Monday--one day before a scheduled review of his leadership of the troubled Behavioral Health Department--Gudeman accused County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston of orchestrating a campaign against him to cover up civil rights abuses taking place in Juvenile Hall.

Gudeman says Johnston failed to act after being notified earlier this year that a mentally disturbed youth in Juvenile Hall was kept in seclusion without treatment, an alleged civil rights violation. Instead of investigating the case, Johnston in recent weeks has been making a case to fire him, Gudeman says in the memo addressed to Johnston and County Counsel Frank Sieh.

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“I can only conclude that this has been an orchestrated attempt to silence this issue by diverting public attention away from the true concerns at Juvenile Hall by scapegoating me and publicly assaulting my reputation and my stalwart commitment to patient care,” Gudeman wrote.

Papers attached to the memo indicate Johnston was notified of the alleged incident in a Jan. 28 memo. In that memo, Gudeman does not provide the youth’s name, citing confidentiality issues. Johnston could not be reached for comment Monday.

Several county supervisors said Johnston repeatedly asked Gudeman and his boss, Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand, for more information about the alleged violation after receiving the Jan. 28 memo but got no response.

Probation Agency Chief Cal Remington did his own review and, by narrowing the possibilities, recently identified the youth in question, Supervisor Kathy Long said. An investigation into Gudeman’s claim is underway, Long said.

Despite Gudeman’s charges, Long and supervisors Steve Bennett and Judy Mikels said they do not favor delaying his performance review.

“Professionally, he has crossed a line here,” Long said. “Making threats pertaining to civil rights violations of patients is a serious matter. He has now put the board in an untenable position.”

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Bennett also questioned Gudeman’s motive.

“Given the timing, common sense would say this is not a coincidence,” he said. “I take civil rights violations real seriously. But this appears to be a counterattack rather than a sincere effort to get to the bottom of any civil rights violation.”

Mikels called the memo a “diversionary smoke screen.

“It seems to me this is just an attempt to deflect the discussion,” she said. “The discussion is not about the Probation Agency. The discussion is about Behavioral Health. For this kind of memo to start flying around at the eleventh hour is saying, ‘Watch your behind.’ ”

Gudeman’s memo was distributed by Supervisor Frank Schillo, the mental health chief’s strongest ally on the Board of Supervisors. Schillo is in Washington on a lobbying trip and will not attend today’s board meeting, his office aides said.

Schillo had requested a continuance of Gudeman’s review, but with a majority of supervisors in opposition that appears unlikely. Johnston is scheduled to make a recommendation on Gudeman’s job in this closed-door session.

Johnston and others have been critical of Gudeman, saying he does not work cooperatively with other agency chiefs. Critics say he has resisted providing needed mental health treatment for incarcerated youths, trying to shift the cost to the Probation Agency’s Remington.

Gudeman has continually defended his department and his three-year tenure as its leader. He blames shrinking budgets for spats between agencies and says he has provided better care to patients than his predecessors.

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On Monday, the UCLA-trained psychiatrist denied that his memo was meant as a threat to supervisors.

“There’s no threat here,” he said. “I have an affirmative duty to do my job and to defend my reputation, and that’s what I’ve done.”

It’s not the first time that the county has been accused of alleged violations of federal law. Four years ago, county psychiatrist Jerome Lance filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against the county, alleging its Behavioral Health Department had submitted illegal Medicare billings.

Supervisors agreed to settle that lawsuit for $15.3 million, with an estimated $2 million going to Lance as the whistle-blower.

Lance, now one of Gudeman’s top deputies in the Behavioral Health Department, was coauthor of the Jan. 28 memo notifying Johnston about the alleged civil rights violation. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

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