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Diversion of Bioterrorism Funds Alleged

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County officials are looking into a former government employee’s allegations that federal money intended to guard against bioterrorism has been misused.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston directed his staff to examine charges voiced Tuesday by Bruce Bradley, a former employee of the county’s anti-bioterrorism unit.

If something looks out of place, Johnston said, he would then order a full-blown investigation.

Bradley told the Board of Supervisors he was concerned some of the $750,000 in federal grant money that should have been used to ensure Ventura County was prepared for a bioterrorist attack was instead diverted to other uses.

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Public health administrators had signed a document certifying to the state -- which distributed the grant money -- that the dollars would be spent specifically on plans to protect county residents against and respond to bioterror events.

But a doctor who was supposed to work full-time drawing up surveillance and response plans was told to spend half his time at a tuberculosis clinic, Bradley said.

And an epidemiologist hired for the elite unit was given some responsibilities unrelated to bioterrorism, he said.

Bradley told the supervisors that if they did not investigate, he would file a whistle-blower lawsuit to bring attention to the issue.

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“I witnessed things not getting done and the county not getting protected from bioterrorism,” Bradley said.

Paul Lorenz, the county’s public health director, flatly denied the allegations. While the doctor and epidemiologist did take on other duties, Lorenz said, any time that they spent on other issues was paid from other funding sources.

“I’m confident and very comfortable that we have done everything that is required of us with regards to the expenditure of funds,” Lorenz said.

Bradley may have misunderstood how the funding was being used, Lorenz said. Or he may have an ax to grind for other reasons, Lorenz and other officials suggested.

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Bradley was hired as a public information officer for the bioterrorism unit in November 2002, but was “let go” after six months on the job, Lorenz said.

Lorenz declined to say why Bradley was fired, citing confidentiality rules.

Bradley said he was not told why he was being terminated, but said it occurred while he was still in a probationary period.

“They can say whatever they want about me,” he said Tuesday, after telling supervisors of his concerns during a public comment period. “I have nothing to gain by this.”

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But if Bradley did initiate a lawsuit, under federal law he would be entitled to a portion of any fine levied against the county. A lawsuit very likely would be filed in federal court because the money was made available to states and counties under President Bush’s 2002 response to terrorism.

Ventura County officials know how serious a whistle-blower lawsuit can be. In 1998, another employee filed suit alleging the county had improperly billed the federal Medicare program.

Supervisors ended up settling that lawsuit for $15.3 million and the whistle-blower, Dr. Jerome Lance, was awarded a cut estimated at $2 million.

Johnston said it would take time to sort out the details of Bradley’s allegations and decide whether to proceed with a full investigation.

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Board Chairman Steve Bennett said his office was already looking into the matter.

“Whenever you hear those allegations, you take them seriously,” he said.

Dr. Robert Levin, the county’s public health officer, said the bioterror unit made progress in its first year.

About 100 doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and paramedics have been vaccinated against smallpox, near the county’s goal of 125.

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