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Lee County’s top staffer Tuesday dodged questions about her administration’s handling of Medstar and VR Laboratories.

County Manager Karen Hawes said she’s “trying to find out” whether commissioners and the public should have been told about Medstar’s failings.

Hawes admits public safety administrators told her about the county’s failure to meet federal safety requirements and inability to bill for $3.5 million in medical flights, before the program was suspended.

However, Hawes said she didn’t understand her staffers when they told her about their plan to publicly claim the medical flight program was suspended to seek a voluntary accreditation.

“I wish I could go back to that day and understand what they were talking about,” Hawes said.

Hawes admitted, last week, the failure to meet those requirements played a role in the decision to suspend the program.

But she stayed silent when her two public safety managers, John Wilson and Kim Dickerson, claimed the program was suspended as part of a plan to seek an accreditation that no other government in Florida holds.

The day of the suspension, Dickerson denied that the program faced liability issues, financial troubles or other problems in response to specific questions from The News-Press.

It wasn’t the right “mix” of personnel to obtain the voluntary accreditation, said Dickerson hours after the suspension.

While Hawes said she knew the county’s failure to meet safety standards barred officials from billing for flights, she said she didn’t find out county staff billed patients for $3 million in violation of federal rules until Sept. 6.

Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz said the county discovered the improper billings while responding to a request from The News-Press. It took county management more than a week to issue that reply.

Commissioner Brian Bigelow Tuesday implored Hawes to step down, suggesting she return to a post in the Human Services Department.

“Ms. Hawes, you can’t possibly survive this. Your credibility is going down fast,” Bigelow said. “If there’s a position in human services, possibly it’s there for you today. It might not be there for you tomorrow if you continue for this.”

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In an effort to fix the fiasco, Hawes wants to spend up to $15,000 on a public relations firm that’s owned by the wife of retired EMS deputy director Chris Hansen.

Hansen will liaison with Federal Aviation Administration officials, as the agency probes the county’s rule violations. His wife’s firm will also perform public relations, under the yet-to-be signed contract, Hawes said.

County management reserved another $39,000 to bring in the Ohio-based company, Global Aviation Consultants LLC, according to county documents.

That company will provide guidelines for possibly privatizing the public service and reestablishing a medical flight program, Managing Director Lawrence Fletcher said.

“We’ve proposed to have all the guidelines ready for enactment by the end of October or three quarters of the way through October,” Fletcher said.

The contract has yet-to-be finalized Hawes said, as county officials are considering a few other companies for the job.

Clerk of Court Charlie Green said Tuesday his audit of Medstar will also consider privatization. Green told commissioners that he hopes to have his review of the program complete within 60 days.

“In general, we will look at all the information we need to make recommendations to this board so everyone understands what transpired,” Green said.

VR Laboratories also an issue

Hawes’ handling of VR Laboratories also came under Bigelow’s scrutiny at Tuesday’s meeting.

The health food supplement company received $4.7 million in taxpayer money to build a facility that would allegedly create 208 high-paying jobs before 2017. But the company has only created nine jobs and construction of the facility has stalled.

The general contractor has sued the company, nine sub-contractors have filed liens and the maker of its bottling equipment supplier refused to deliver machinery for lack of payment.

“I’m curious: what went wrong, what will be corrected, who’s accountable, how will they be held responsible?” Bigelow said. “Apparently $5 million walked out the door inconsistent with an agreement with these folks,”

Commissioner Ray Judah, however, shielded Hawes from having to answer the questions.

“Procedurally, I think out of courtesy and respect, we need to offer an opportunity for the county manager to provide a response to those charges,” Judah said.

“But not at this time,” Judah said.

Commission Chair John Manning agreed, before Hawes could reply to the questions. The News-Press first reported about the halted construction, lawsuit and contractor liens more than two weeks ago.

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