Facing the biggest scandal in her three years as Lee County manager, Karen Hawes has kept in the shadows, not discussing the evolving controversy with the county’s emergency medical helicopter.
Hawes is ultimately responsible for mismanagement within the Public Safety program: the billing mistakes, loss of fuel and what appears to be a blatant disregard of federal law. The fact Hawes has not been out in front of this is bewildering.
She would not answer questions from The News-Press on Tuesday after her comments to the county commissioners.
An email sent by her office later read: “I will be the direct media contact for any future inquiries and will respond to media as quickly as possible.” It also indicated Holly Schwartz, the assistant county manager, would be available.
Yet, another email from Hawes’ office read: “I will provide an update to the media on Fridays, following my weekly reports to the board.”
A call from The News-Press to Hawes on Wednesday was not returned. So it is very difficult to determine if returning calls “as quickly as possible” means once a week on Fridays, or if Hawes is purposely trying to avoid addressing this very serious issue.
She says she learned the Medstar program did not have the authority to bill patients — but did anyway, for about $3 million — only on Aug. 19, about 10 months after the problems started. She did not suspend the program until several days later and did not tell county commissioners until last week.
She told commissioners Tuesday she did not believe this colossal set of missteps was intentional, only a mistake.
Was is it just a mistake when a Medstar pilot was told not to have any contact with the Federal Aviation Administration even though he was appointed to file quarterly reports with the feds?
Or when a pilot told the FAA his instructor’s credentials, the paperwork needed for him to properly certify pilots for billing purposes, had expired, and that the pilot was subsequently placed on leave?
Was just it a mistake in 2010 when the county claimed it never received four warning notices sent by the FAA, informing officials they were in violation of eight federal regulations pertaining to its training program, record-keeping and maintenance procedures?
Or sending pilots into the air, knowing they were not certified to bill patients and did anyway.
Was it just a mistake to send a news release last month, saying the reason the Medstar program was grounded was to seek a voluntary national accreditation that wasn’t needed, knowing the real reason was being covered up?
No, that was intentional.
The only thing The News-Press got when it sought public records and comments for more than three weeks was silence.
Instead of records, we were threatened with civil and criminal penalties when we sought the dispatch information of Medstar flights. We were asking for the number of flights, not a patient’s name, which would have violated privacy regulations. We also understand a patient’s examination and treatment information also is exempt from public record.
The taxpayers deserve answers. Now. We are talking about millions of dollars, possible lawsuits and public distrust of Southwest Florida’s largest branch of government to have the administrative leader suddenly go quiet.
There is a major problem with a critical program that we depend on to make the right decisions because lives depend on it. We may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg. The latest revelation, that a maintenance official allegedly took helicopter fuel to gas up his farm equipment, makes us wonder what else is going on with Medstar.
When Hawes took over as interim county manager for Don Stilwell in 2009, she said: When I stepped in, decisions needed to be made quickly.”
That didn’t happen in this case.
She has promised transparency and that is all we ask.