Ex-worker indicted in celebrity patient leaks

Times Staff Writer

A former administrative specialist at UCLA Medical Center has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly selling information to the media from medical records of celebrity patients, according to a document unsealed Tuesday.

Lawanda Jackson, 49, was indicted April 9 on a charge of obtaining individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage. Actress Farrah Fawcett and her lawyers allege that Jackson leaked personal information about her battle with cancer to the National Enquirer and other tabloids.

The indictment refers to an unidentified national media outlet, but a source familiar with the matter confirmed that the paper was the National Enquirer.

According to the indictment, Jackson received at least $4,600 from the publication through checks made out to her husband. The agreement lasted from about 2006 until at least May 21, 2007, according to the indictment.

Jackson faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted of the charge. Such charges involving the disclosure of medical records are rare.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said that the investigation was continuing and that additional defendants may be charged, including the media outlet involved.

Among the charges the Enquirer could face are conspiracy and aiding and abetting, said Reece Hirsch, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in San Francisco.

"There is a line there between the appropriate investigative role of the media versus basically inducing the hospital employee or an employee of another healthcare provider to violate medical privacy law," Hirsch said.

Cameron Stracher, senior media counsel for Enquirer parent American Media Inc., said Tuesday that he could not comment on the matter.

Fawcett and her lawyers talked to Jackson by phone Friday to encourage her to come forward and provide information about her contacts with the tabloids, according to Craig Nevius, producer of Fawcett's upcoming documentary, "A Wing and a Prayer," which chronicles the actress' fight against cancer and her efforts to protect her privacy.

Fawcett "reached out to her and said, 'You're in a lot of trouble, and you should come forward now while you can and do the right thing,' " Nevius said. "Lawanda was very nice to Farrah and said she would speak to her at some point in the future but had been advised to keep her mouth shut for now."

The push by celebrity-oriented media outlets to gain information and photographs of stars has recently become a matter of public controversy. While the efforts of paparazzi to track celebrities' movements in Los Angeles have led to public safety concerns, the use of details contained in confidential medical records has raised a new set of issues.

The indictment was returned days after The Times reported widespread violations of celebrity privacy at UCLA, but it was kept under seal until Tuesday. Jackson was not arrested and is expected to appear at an arraignment scheduled for June 9 in federal court in downtown Los Angeles, Mrozek said.

Earlier this month, The Times reported that Jackson had allegedly pried into the private medical records of California First Lady Maria Shriver, Fawcett and 60 others. In an April 8 interview with the newspaper, Jackson denied that she had leaked the information or otherwise profited from it.

"Clearly I made a mistake; let's put it like that," Jackson said when asked in a telephone interview why she improperly looked at the records of so many patients. "I didn't leak anything or anything like that. It wasn't for money or anything. It was just looking."

She dismissed questions about whether she had a financial motive to sell information. According to court records, Jackson and her husband, Victor, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, listing assets of less than $23,000 and liabilities of $37,300. But she said, "That was a long, long, long time ago."

In the interview with The Times, Jackson would not say whether she had ever spoken to the Enquirer. "I'm not going to answer that," she said. "I'm scared to answer that."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Victor Jackson said his wife was not available. "I don't have a comment on it right now," he said. "I don't even know nothing about it." He then hung up.

This month, Enquirer senior reporter Alan Smith defended his coverage of Fawcett's cancer. "This is a newsworthy story," he said. "We publish what we believe is accurate."

Prosecutions for breaching patients' privacy are rare. The government has received about 34,000 complaints of privacy violations since it officially began enforcing the law five years ago, but only a handful of defendants have been criminally prosecuted.

The charges against Jackson are the most serious allowed under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, widely known as HIPAA, Hirsch said.

UCLA launched an investigation after Fawcett told her doctor, Eric Esrailian, that she believed her records had been leaked to the Enquirer for a story it ran in May headlined "Farrah's Cancer Is Back!" The hospital discovered that Jackson had looked at Fawcett's records repeatedly.

The hospital did not refer its findings to criminal authorities or state regulators, saying it found no evidence that the worker had either disclosed or sold the information she acquired.

Later, however, officials acknowledged that their investigation was limited to e-mails and phone calls made from work.

Jackson had worked at UCLA since she was 16 and resigned last summer after the hospital informed her that it intended to fire her.

California health officials said they were concerned about breaches in patients' privacy and wanted hospitals to take the matter seriously.

"No one who goes to a hospital for care should have to worry about the security of his or her private health information," Kim Belshe of the California Health and Human Services Agency said in a written statement. "It's critical that hospitals take aggressive steps to protect medical records."

Hospital officials say they are taking the matter seriously. "Hospitals try to stop this every way they can, but if you get an employee like this, sometimes there's nothing you can do," said Lois Richardson, vice president and legal counsel of the California Hospital Assn. "The threat of jail time may be just the thing to stop this type of employee."

UCLA said it had taken steps to enhance the privacy of patients' information and had apologized to those whose records were improperly reviewed. As of earlier this month, 14 UCLA workers had resigned, retired or were fired -- and nine physicians were suspended -- for peeking at the records of pop star Britney Spears during a hospitalization this year.

"We are deeply troubled that a former employee may have illegally received payments from a news organization in exchange for providing personal medical information," Dr. David Feinberg, chief executive officer of the UCLA Hospital System, said in a statement.

"We welcome the U.S. attorney's investigation and stand ready to cooperate in achieving a swift and fair outcome," he said.

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charles.ornstein@latimes.com

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