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Janitor at L.A. County health clinic allegedly stole files for recycling money

A janitor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Willowbrook has been charged with felony commercial burglary for allegedly selling 14 boxes of patient records to a recycling center, authorities said Thursday.

The boxes contained computer printouts of about 30,000 patient names, addresses, phone numbers and medical record numbers — not private medical information, according to William T Fujioka, L.A. County’s chief executive.

Robert Sanders, 55, was arrested Sept. 10 in connection with the alleged theft. He was charged Monday with felony commercial burglary and placed on administrative leave, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore and county officials. County jail records indicate Sanders was released on his own recognizance.

Sanders, who was known for recycling bottles and cans, admitted to taking the records to be recycled a few weeks ago, Whitmore said. He was paid $40 for the papers inside the boxes, Whitmore said.

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“He did it for the paper,” Whitmore said. “There’s no identity theft.”

In recent years, local hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, have drawn criticism after staff members were caught peeping at the records of celebrity patients such as Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett Britney Spears and octuplets mother Nadya Suleman.

The high-profile breaches led state lawmakers to pass laws that took effect last year imposing steep fines on healthcare facilities that fail to protect patient privacy and promptly report intentional and unintentional privacy breaches to patients and regulators.

But in this case, the janitor does not appear to have taken the records to snoop on patients, and the records did not contain any private medical information about patients, county officials said.

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“There’s nothing in there that speaks to their diagnosis, their illness, their injury,” Fujioka said. “That’s the real sensitive information.” If the records are found to be private under state and federal law, the facility could be fined by regulators for their unauthorized release.

California Department of Public Health officials confirmed Thursday that they are investigating whether the incident constituted a violation, but spokesman Ralph Montano declined to comment further.

Fujioka’s office was also reviewing the incident and expected to report back to supervisors.

“We have to have appropriate internal controls to make sure there is no breach in privacy with respect to the delivery of services to our patients,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes the clinic and the adjacent site of the new, nonprofit Martin Luther King Hospital scheduled to open in 2013.

“What’s clear is that those papers, even if they were scrap, should not have been removed from the premises. There will be appropriate consequences once it’s determined what actually happened,” he said, calling the investigation, “a matter of public trust.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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