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Palm Beach County Health Care District sued by former internal watchdog, who claims retaliation

Palm Beach County Health Care District sued by former internal watchdog, who claims retaliation

The former compliance officer for the Palm Beach County Health Care District, RoxAnne Harris, has sued the agency, claiming the district fired her in retaliation for launching an investigation that included the hand­ling of email archive security.

The suit comes after the Health Care District board split 3-3 on Jan. 11 on whether to accept a tentative mediated settlement of $85,000 with Harris. Several board members had wanted more explicit language requiring Harris’ confidentiality.

Instead, Harris has sued.

Represented by Joseph Sconzo, a retired FBI agent who investigated public corruption before going into private legal practice in 2010, Harris does not explicitly detail in her lawsuit what federal and state laws she believed had been broken, or who at the Health Care District might have been responsible. It says only that her inquiry concerned “violations of compliance standards contrary to federal and state law.”

On Feb. 8, the board plans to discuss the issue in closed session with its attorneys . Until then, district corporate counsel Peter Sachs said, the district cannot comment on the litigation. The district’s legal response is due Feb. 9.

Harris’ job was to act as an internal watchdog for the district, something required by federal law. She was fired, the suit says, after she was sent to make a case against a manager in the information technology department and instead was told of possible wrongdoing by more senior Health Care District managers.

It was Aug. 10 when the district’s former chief human resources officer, Jannis Muscato, sent Harris to investigate a longtime employee in the information technology department who was accused of operating his own computer business during work hours, according to the suit.

After meeting with the manager, Harris felt “there was a greater issue behind the request to conduct this investigation.” She asked the district’s attorney and chief human resources officer, as well as CEO Dr. Ron Wiewora, to postpone the employee’s planned termination so she could look into the more serious allegations.

According to several former employees, those allegations included a charge that control over the email archives, and the logs of who was accessing them, had been put under the purview of one person, a move that could allow sensitive documents to be changed or deleted undetected. Last spring, as The Palm Beach Post was publishing stories about a questionable nursing home land deal, the district board was discussing putting itself under the oversight of the Palm Beach County inspector general. In addition, the U.S. attorney’s office was beginning to request public records.

Federal law requires agencies that bill Medicare to maintain the integrity of their email archives and to name the security officers given responsibility for those archives. The individual on record as that security officer, Lawrence Decker, said his access had been removed, also. He had raised questions about it, and resigned over that and other issues in October.

“I was the security officer,” Decker said in an interview. “I couldn’t do my job. If something comes up I am supposed to be able to see who is logging in and what they are logging in to do.”

Instead of accepting Harris’ advice to hold off while she investigated, the lawsuit alleges, the district immediately fired the IT employee.

Meanwhile, Wiewora ordered Harris to sit down with the department’s chief information officer, Tracy Legenos, and disclose the allegations made by the fired employee . Harris has said she objected to announcing the start of an investigation before facts were known. Legenos’ and the lawsuit’s accounts of that meeting differ.

“During this meeting, it was discussed that the district was out of compliance with (federal) security requirements due to the security officer’s access to the email archive system,” the lawsuit alleges, continuing, “During this meeting, Tracy became irate and went to Dr. Wiewora.”

In an account Legenos prepared for Wiewora, she alleges the opposite: Legenos said Harris had asked her to sign a form agreeing not to retaliate against her staff, a demand Legenos found “insulting, demeaning and very unprofessional!”

“Her tone and words were very combative; I was actually a bit insulted the way she was assuming I had done something incorrectly,” Legenos wrote.

Five days later, Harris was called into a meeting with Wiewora and the district’s staff attorney, and was terminated, the lawsuit alleges. Wiewora signed papers ordering Harris to return her $5,000 moving stipend, since she had been there less than 90 days, public records show.

Harris reported to the board, not to the CEO, and so after her firing she appealed to then-district board Chairman Jonathan Satter. On the advice of Sachs, Satter reinstated her, put her on paid leave, and brought in labor law firm Jackson Lewis to investigate. Sachs said the firm would not be issuing a written report on its investigation, but would deliver its findings to the board behind closed doors on Feb. 8. He said the chief human resources officer, Jannis Muscato, is no longer with the district.