Another Physician Accused of Lying
Even as he knew Los Angeles County auditors were trailing him, the head of the pediatrics department at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center continued working in private practice during hours he was being paid to be at the hospital -- then repeatedly lied about it, records show.
Dr. Lawrence D. Robinson Jr.'s private office is in Lancaster, 83 miles from King/Drew.
County officials have been aware of his periodic moonlighting since October, and their report was complete in early March. But they did not formally threaten Robinson with dismissal until Thursday, after The Times asked about the inquiry.
Robinson resigned under pressure Thursday afternoon, county officials said.
The accusations are the latest facing King/Drew physicians involving such alleged activity as timecard fraud, conflicts of interest, poor work habits and excessive compensation.
Robinson, 62, acting chairman of pediatrics, is at least the ninth department head to leave or be forced out in the last two years. Half of King/Drew’s 16 medical departments lack permanent chairmen, imperiling the hospital’s ability to fix myriad lapses in patient care.
Robinson’s departure comes after auditors on seven occasions confirmed in person or by telephone that he was in Lancaster when he was scheduled to be at the hospital in Willowbrook, just south of Watts.
On Nov. 3, for example, auditors paged Robinson after a receptionist at his office in the Antelope Valley confirmed that he was busy seeing patients there. When he returned the call five minutes later, the doctor denied that he had a job outside King/Drew and said he was at a dental appointment, according to the auditors’ report.
Several minutes after that, auditors said, an assistant at King/Drew hand-delivered a request by Robinson to take the day off as a personal day.
On another day, auditors photographed his name on the signboard in front of his Lancaster office, on a parking space, on the directory inside the building and on the door to Suite 7. They even went inside and plucked his business card from the office counter.
On Thursday, The Times found that the signs remained in place and that an answering machine at Robinson’s private office gave his King/Drew pager number as his emergency contact.
In an interview the same day, before he resigned, Robinson said the moonlighting allegations resulted from a series of misunderstandings and innocent mistakes.
“I never said I was working at King/Drew when I was somewhere else, to my knowledge,” said Robinson, who started at the hospital in 1973, the year after it opened. In the most recent fiscal year, before he became acting chairman, he earned nearly $152,000 between his county salary and his academic stipend from King/Drew’s affiliated medical school.
Robinson, who also directed the hospital’s division of allergy and immunology and has personally paid to send asthmatic children to summer camp, said he had devoted his professional life to King/Drew.
“I’m working full time. I’m here all day, every five minutes,” he said.
County officials said Thursday that the audit showed otherwise. They said they could not comprehend why senior doctors at the public hospital continued behaving inappropriately while King/Drew was under unprecedented scrutiny -- and at the expense of the institution they purported to love.
Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, director of the county Department of Health Services, said his agency was investigating at least three other King/Drew physicians for possibly falsifying their timecards.
“I believe we’re getting to the bottom” of cases involving false claims of hours worked by doctors, he said Thursday. “The only thing we can do to take action is to take each case on its merits whenever we discover anything of concern.”
Earlier this week, Garthwaite told reporters he hadn’t read the audit of Robinson and didn’t know if the problems with the doctor were serious. Instead, he discussed the physician’s former high school running prowess.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called Robinson’s actions another example of the lack of standards and accountability “from the top to the bottom” at King/Drew. “It’s embedded in the walls,” Yaroslavsky said, and raises “the question of whether the hospital is fixable.”
He and Supervisor Mike Antonovich called on Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to launch an investigation into this case and other possible crimes by King/Drew staff. “It’s not one doctor. It’s not two doctors. It appears to be the tip of the iceberg,” Antonovich said.
He added that he planned to ask the county counsel to file suit against Robinson and other doctors to recover money paid to them.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Cooley, said prosecutors had been conducting a preliminary inquiry into allegations of misconduct at the hospital and would not be rushed by the supervisors.
“We’re not the Board of Supervisors. We’re the district attorney’s office, and we must determine first if there are prosecutable criminal violations of the law,” she said.
Earlier this week, The Times reported that King/Drew had paid more than $1.3 million in one year for the services of a radiologist who submitted timecards saying he had worked more than 20 hours a day seven days a week for weeks at a time. Against the orders of the hospital’s top administrator, the department’s interim chairman directed the bills to be paid, county officials said.
The investigation into Robinson, who has led the pediatrics department since July, began with a tip to the county’s fraud hotline in October, records show.
County doctors are allowed to work up to 24 hours a week at outside jobs, but they must inform the county in advance. On his September 2004 outside-employment form, Robinson said he worked solely at King/Drew, auditors found.
They soon determined that he was also employed elsewhere. They called the office he listed with the Medical Board of California, and a receptionist confirmed that Robinson saw patients in Lancaster one or two days a week, according to the auditors’ report.
When first questioned in November, he denied any outside work. Again in December, he insisted he did not have time for another job. But when auditors confronted him with evidence of his continued moonlighting, Robinson said he had previously worked at his private practice during county work hours but had ceased doing so, the report says.
He said then that he only reviewed medical charts on Saturdays.
The next month, auditors called Robinson’s private practice again and requested an appointment. The receptionist indicated that the physician was “completely booked” on his next available day -- a day he was paid to work at King/Drew -- and wouldn’t have another opening for three weeks, the report said.
Auditors reviewed Robinson’s timecards from Oct. 1, 2004, through Jan. 31, 2005, and compared them to his time-off requests, parking lot card-key access reports and the days he was under surveillance.
Among the findings: On Oct. 13, Robinson’s timecard said he worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at King/Drew. Auditors determined that he was seeing patients in Lancaster at 10:03 a.m. and did not enter King/Drew’s parking lot until 7:08 p.m., according to the report.
Nine days later, the doctor again said he was at King/Drew from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There were no records of his ever having entered the parking lot.
Auditors faulted King/Drew’s medical director, Dr. Roger Peeks, for having no idea what hours his employees were working and no way to verify that they had worked the hours listed on their timecards.
In the interview Thursday, Robinson gave a variety of explanations for the auditors’ findings.
He said he had sold the Lancaster practice after his wife died in 2000 and didn’t consider the limited hours he spent there to be outside employment.
As for the time he told auditors he was at the dentist’s, Robinson said he indeed went to his dentist’s office, which is next door to his office in Lancaster.
But he said that when he stopped briefly at his office on the way, he was waylaid by a patient. “I was on my way there,” he said. “When I walked into the office, a patient came in and wanted to see me.”
Robinson was the third chairman of the pediatrics department in four years. In December 2001, the county removed Dr. Frederick James as chairman after an outside audit found that he had “acted in an insular fashion and was not able to communicate or get buy-in on his vision for the department by any of the constituents in the system.” James has filed an appeal.
Robinson’s resignation takes effect at 5 p.m. today.