Accountability the loser in county's FOIA response

Beaufort County officials did themselves no favors with the public or state regulators when they failed to release key information about the job performance of two county paramedics.

Nor did they do anything to enhance their defense against allegations of the paramedics' poor performance in the treatment of Brian Lanese the night he was severely beaten in October 2008.

County attorney Lad Howell strains credulity and the contents of the county personnel handbook with his definition of what constitutes a "disciplinary action."

In short, the county comes across as more concerned about liability than accountability.

That propensity to withhold information was evident in Howell's response to this newspaper's request in December 2008 for records about the paramedics' past job performance, including any prior disciplinary action against them, under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Howell said there were no records of disciplinary action.

But documents, depositions and records cited in a lawsuit filed by Lanese and his wife, Tracy, over Lanese's treatment contradict that. As does the county personnel handbook's definition of what constitutes disciplinary action.

The handbook states, "Disciplinary action that may be taken includes but is not limited to: informal counseling; oral reprimand; written reprimand; suspension without pay; probation; demotion; dismissal."

The lawsuit outlines a job performance history that raises questions about the judgment and professionalism of the two paramedics, Jeffrey Knieling and Shayna Orsen.

Especially troubling is a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigation into whether Kneiling photographed an unclothed female patient. The lawsuit states that Sheriff's Office investigators gave Kneiling a polygraph test, which he failed. He then admitted downloading photos from his phone to his personal computer.

Howell's explanation for why he told the newspaper there were no records of disciplinary action falls flat in light of that handbook list. He said several instances of misconduct cited in the lawsuit didn't result in formal displicinary action; the paramedic accused of taking pictures of the naked patient wasn't officially disciplined; the few warnings they received didn't constitute official disciplinary action. (See definition above.)

The lawsuit also states county EMS officials "selectively provided" information to the DHEC official assigned to investigate the paramedics' handling of the Lanese case.

That investigator, Terry Horton, acknowledged that his review "was closely coordinated with, and to some extent guided by, (former EMS director Rusty) Hollingsworth and Beaufort County EMS personnel," the lawsuit states.

The two-page report did list errors made by the EMS crew. The crew:

  • Did not bring proper equipment into the house.
  • Made inflammatory comments to Tracy Lanese and a friend at the scene.
  • Incorrectly stated that LifeStar would not transport Lanese by air because he was combative.
  • But the lawsuit states that Horton acknowledged in a deposition that if he'd known about Knieling's and Orsen's work histories, "his conclusions may have been different."

    Horton also said Knieling's work record in years before the Lanese incident-- had DHEC known about it -- probably would have resulted in his EMT certificate being suspended or revoked, the lawsuit states.

    That's troubling when you consider one of the results of Horton's investigation in 2009: Orsen and Knieling were required to "teach an 'In-Service Training' class on the subject of 'scene management and conflict resolution.'

    That's right. DHEC recommended that paramedics who were criticized for improper conduct at the scene teach a class on that very subject.

    The lawsuit's allegations also remind us why we objected to singling out emergency medical personnel for special protection under state law. Changes to the law last year made available to the public incident reports, response times and other EMS data, a problem uncovered during the course of reporting on the Lanese case and the outfall from it. But the names of EMS personnel -- unlike firefighters and police officers -- are kept from the general public.

    Secrecy discourages accountability and makes it difficult to assess how state regulators and county supervisors handle problem employees.