County attorney defends Freedom of Information decision

May 28, 2011 

In December 2008, a letter landed on Beaufort County attorney Lad Howell's desk seeking information about two paramedics who had been accused of mishandling a head-trauma call in Bluffton.

The letter asked for records about the paramedics' past job performance, including any prior disciplinary action against them. As the county's top attorney, Howell often was asked to handle such requests.

Answering the letter, Howell said there were no records of disciplinary action.

"A search was made of the personnel records for both responders and revealed . . . no disciplinary action taken against them," he wrote in his Dec. 10, 2008 response to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The newspapers had requested the records under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, which among other things requires public officials to provide records about government operations upon request.

As things have turned out, though, the paramedics' personnel records did contain information that criticized their job performance. A lawsuit against the county by Bluffton residents Brian and Tracy Lanese cites "prior reprimands," warnings issued by supervisors and details of a sheriff's office investigation of one of them for allegedly photographing an unclothed female patient.

Brian Lanese suffered severe head trauma as a result of an attack in his backyard in October 2008. The two paramedics who responded were accused by witnesses of not providing adequate care to him, notably refusing to rush him to a Savannah hospital capable of dealing with serious head trauma until they were ordered to do so by an emergency room doctor.

At the same time the newspapers were looking into the paramedics' past, an investigator from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control was looking into the Lanese case, too. Information about the paramedics' past problems also was withheld from him by the county's EMS department, according to the Laneses' suit.

The suit -- after ticking off a litany of on-the-job problems both paramedics had -- contends that the undisclosed records "illustrates the propensity of (the county) not to document or report misconduct of its employees. . . . ."

Lawyers representing the county say they are forbidden by a judge's order from commenting publicly about the lawsuit. But Howell, commenting on the FOIA request, explained Friday why he told the newspapers there were no records of disciplinary action:

  • Several of the instances of misconduct cited in the lawsuit didn't result in formal disciplinary action by EMS supervisors, he said, so there was no reason to provide records on them. The paramedic accused of taking pictures of the naked patient wasn't officially disciplined, for example, even though he had admitted to sheriff's deputies that he took the photos and videotapes and downloaded them to his home computer, according to the lawsuit.

  • The few warnings the paramedics had received didn't constitute official disciplinary action, Howell said. He has "gone back and looked at records" and seen references to warnings, but "disciplinary action is when someone gets suspended." Neither paramedic was ever suspended or counseled after a warning, he said.

    "That's why I answered the way I did," Howell said.

    One of the paramedics, Jeffrey Knieling, was given two warnings, according to the lawsuit. The first, in 2001, was for " 'substandard work' when he failed to restock his ambulance and did not change the oxygen as required." The second, in 2007, was for "poor attitude and lack of respect to a supervisor in front of co-workers and hospital staff."

    Knieling also had been found negligent by the county's Accident Review Board after a 1997 accident in a county vehicle, the suit says.

    The other paramedic, Shayna Orsen, received one warning in 2003 "for failing to be in proper uniform while on duty" and another in 2007 for missing an emergency call after turning down the volume of the radio in her ambulance, according to the lawsuit.

    "Nobody takes those (warnings) as disciplinary action," Howell said. "They were all sort of insignificant . . . The files don't have anything in them in the nature of legitimate discipline."

    It is unclear why other incidents, seemingly more serious, brought no disciplinary action.

    "There is no record of any disciplinary action taken against Mr. Knieling by EMS" after the naked patient was photographed, the suit says. And there's no mention of discipline against Orsen -- other than a notation of "poor judgment" -- when she violated EMS policy by leaving the station in an ambulance without her partner in 2003, the suit says.

    Howell said he believes EMS officials were forthcoming with him in 2008 when he asked for information about the paramedics' job records as he prepared to answer the newspapers' Freedom of Information request.

    The Laneses' suit, however, questions EMS officials' candor. They didn't provide the state investigator "with any of the prior reprimands or disciplinary records of Orsen or Knieling." His findings only mildly criticized the paramedics for the care they gave Lanese, but he has since said he might have come down harder on Knieling had he been supplied complete information.

    Rusty Hollingsworth, the county's EMS director at the time, did not return phone messages left at his home. Hollingsworth has since retired.

    Howell acknowledged Friday ultimate responsibility for appropriately responding to the Freedom of Information request, and repeated that records about the paramedics' past problems on the job "don't rise to the level" of disciplinary action, and therefore didn't need to be disclosed.

    "I just don't view those things as disciplinary procedures," he said Friday after reviewing the files again.

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