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Lee County Medstar mess claims more victims

Sep. 28, 2012


Lee County’s Public Safety director retired suddenly and his second-in-command was put on administrative leave Friday in the aftermath of the county’s Medstar scandal.

The unexpected retirement of John Wilson came during a morning meeting with County Manager Karen Hawes.

In a separate meeting, Hawes placed EMS Chief Kim Dickerson on paid leave, “while the internal review of Medstar operations continues,” according to an email from Hawes.

“This is being done in the best interest of Kim and the agency,” Hawes wrote in a 10:30 a.m. email to county commissioners.

Dickerson and Wilson were in charge of the county’s troubled Medstar program, which was suspended in August.

At that time, Wilson and Dickerson claimed the shudown was part of an effort to seek a voluntary accreditation. They later admitted, in response to specific questions from The News-Press, that the county had failed to meet federal safety mandates and violated rules by billing for $3 million in medical flights between February and May.

But The News-Press reported Friday the violations and erroneous charges actually date to October and continued after May. Finance officials also admitted the county improperly billed for $357,000 more than Dickerson previously let on.

Commissioner Frank Mann said he was briefed on the county manager’s decisions shortly after she completed the meetings.

“I guess I’m pleased that some action is being taken,” Mann said, “but I wish it had been taken earlier.”

Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz will temporarily take on Wilson’s duties, while the deputy chief of ground operations, Scott Tuttle, will fill in for Dickerson, according to Hawes’ email.

Wilson was a 27-year veteran of Lee County government, having previously retired and returned to his post. Hawes praised his “exemplary” work in the wake of Hurricane Charley in 2004.

Dickerson will continue to collect her salary, which stood at $95,000 in 2010, the most recent amount listed in her personnel file. She was promoted last year, but the documents did not reflect a pay raise.

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Commissioner Brian Bigelow accused Hawes of putting Wilson and Dickerson out of work in an effort to protect her own job.

“This does not solve her problems,” Bigelow said. “It’s more of the same that brought us to where we are with Medstar. Her solution, killing the pawns off in order to save the queen, will not work.”

Bigelow has been a constant critic of Hawes’ performance, calling for her resignation earlier this month after the Medstar woes were revealed.

For her part, Hawes eventually admitted that Wilson and Dickerson came to her with their plans to publicly claim Medstar was suspended to seek an accreditation that no other government in the state has. But, Hawes said, she didn’t understand them at the time.

She also confessed that they told her about the county’s failure to meet federal safety mandates and it played a role in her decision to suspend the program, though she remained silent as Wilson and Dickerson publicly denied the program had such troubles.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Medstar. Earlier this week, inspectors took possession of county flight logs and bills.

Clerk of Court Charlie Green will also audit the program, as the county’s Human Resources department conducts a probe of its own.

Commission Chairman John Manning said he wants the results of those endeavors before he passes judgment.

“When all the investigations are over, we’ll make some other decisions down the road,” Manning said.

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