BY DONNA WESTFALL
I wonder about the people in our area understanding the concept of confidentiality. It’s to keep something private and secret. It’s to protect information, identities, or legal agreements. As a Medi-Cal Specialist for Long Term Care the last 19 years, I have to keep my clients information confidential. As a former City Council member, anything said during closed session is to be kept confidential.
People attending Alcoholics Anonymous or any of the other 12 step programs are supposed to keep other attendees identities and anything shared during meetings confidential. The phrase, “What is said here, stays here,” means exactly that. Yet, I know first hand that that privilege is violated on a regular basis.
As a kid, if someone told you a secret, you were duty bound to take it in, lock it up and not share it.
I wonder if people in this County really understand what confidentiality means. Just to reiterate, it means keeping something private and secret.
There is legal confidentiality such as attorney-client privilege. The principles of the testimonial privilege may be traced all the way back to the Roman Republic. Yet it was Elizabeth 1 in the 16th century that had the attorney-client privilege take root.
There is medical confidentiality strengthened by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which took effect in April of 2003 and set privacy standards to keep patient records confidential. That extends to doctors and medical staff in regards to patients information. There is client confidentiality between psychiatrist/therapist and patient.
Normally, the contents of legal agreements such as settlements in the case of chief former district attorney Karen Olson would be kept confidential, yet the local newspaper not only knew about the settlement, but also knew about the amount.
In this case, I wonder who the leak may be and what his or her motivation could possibly be in disclosing only the money part of a confidential settlement agreement.
Whistle blowers. When someone submits a complaint to the Grand Jury, that information is to be kept confidential by the Grand Jury. Ms. Olson went to the Grand Jury with concerns over her boss’ handling of a financial elder abuse case. I’ve witnessed financial elder abuse. In my profession, my responsibility is to protect my clients assets. Up until now, California laws, rules and regulations have been very generous in protecting estates when a nursing home stay is involved. But, when greed is involved, it’s tragic. It rips families apart. All it takes is for one greedy family member to separate their parent from their money. I’ve also seen government employees and care givers take advantage of the elderly as well. When those that are paid to protect the elderly take advantage, it takes an advocate to stand up to those types of abuse.
Who then, is allowed to disclose information? An attorney may disclose information about their client if the “privilege” is waived by the client.
Is there any wonder that potential whistle blowers are reluctant to come forward in this town? When an employee of a government agency takes that courageous step in our town to disclose wrong doing, they are supposed to be protected from wrongful termination. Karen Olson was not protected. And years passed before her lawsuit was finalized. Former City Finance Director, Joei Sanchez, was not protected. She sued. She won a settlement on her wrongful termination lawsuit as well. Former assistant DA, Mordechai Pelta was allowed to resign effective the date of his wrongful termination by former DA Jon Alexander. He sued and won a settlement.
What are the legal and ethical responsibilities of an elected official/union official/city manager or CAO in handling the concerns of wrongdoing in the job place by a whistle blower? Whistle blowers are supposed to be protected and receive immunity. Does it happen here? Not hardly. That’s why corruption continues in this town. People are fearful to come forward and that’s why corruption prevails. What happens when a whistle blower approaches their government official(s) and is double crossed? That whistle blower is fired. Time and time again, it continues. But, it’s time for it to stop.
What steps should a whistle blower take to avoid wrongful termination? That’s a difficult questions to answer. In a small corrupt community such as ours, it’s nearly impossible to avoid wrongful termination because of dealing with the currently entrenched good old boys/girls. But times are changing. An educated public will eventually take steps to vote in better candidates. With elected officials taking their jobs more seriously, more intent on protecting the public they serve and the public funds they are accountable for, we hope to see the end to this vicious cycle.