Records: Tacoma clinic subject of bribery, falsification allegations
A Tacoma drug and alcohol counseling clinic allegedly allows some clients to graduate from treatment even though they've never attended a session, according to public records obtained by KING 5.
A KING 5 Investigation uncovered claims in public documents that A Change Counseling Services submitted falsified treatment reports to the courts in exchange for bribes from more than one client.
A Change is one of the state-licensed drug and alcohol clinics to which Pierce County courts routinely refer criminal offenders. The allegations suggest that some drug and alcohol addicted offenders – including drunk drivers – may be back on the street without getting the help that the courts have ordered.
"Lives can be impacted. People with multiple DUI history are a risk to the public," said Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper when discussing the important role played by clinics that provide court-mandated treatment.
Records filed with the state and interviews with witnesses paint a troubling picture of the counseling clinic, which is located on South M Street in Tacoma.
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One woman's story
Kathy Bisbee's husband got a DUI in 2013. The judge ordered him to undergo alcohol counseling, and Bisbee told KING 5 she was hopeful that the counseling would help lead her husband down the path toward sobriety.
"When he came home and said he didn't have to go to classes, I was very devastated," Bisbee said.
Bisbee said her husband admitted he had paid $1,700 to A Change Counseling owner Clarence Farmer. She even put that allegation in writing in a domestic violence petition that she submitted against her husband in Lewis County court in 2014. He paid "cash to get out of ‘classes,'" Bisbee wrote to the court.
In exchange for the money, Bisbee said Farmer allowed her husband to skip court-ordered classes. She said her husband continued to drink when he was supposed to be enrolled in a three-month treatment program in the early part of 2014.
"But he drank almost every day in January, in February and in March," said Bisbee, who documented her husband's continued drinking on a calendar. In the 2014 domestic violence petition, Bisbee wrote that her husband "has been coming home very drunk every night ... for well over 2 1/2 months."
Her husband isn't a first-time offender. In 1989 he hit and killed a woman while he was drag racing. He was drunk at the time of that accident, according to court records and news accounts of the fatal crash.
Records filed with the court of Pierce County Judge Culpepper show that A Change certified Bisbee's husband was "in compliance" and had completed his course of treatment at the clinic. The documents were signed by Clarence Farmer.
Bisbee's claim isn't unique.
In the fall of 2015, a law firm told the KING 5 Investigators that two of its clients were solicited for bribes at the clinic.
"At the time I was actually nervous and scared. I just wanted to get out of there," said one of the firm's clients, who asked KING 5 to conceal his identity because he was receiving services from A Change at the time he was interviewed.
Ordered into treatment because of a DUI conviction, the client said the counselor told him that he had tested positive for alcohol use in a urinalysis test. The client said the counselor offered to "fix" the test – in other words to not report the results to the court.
"I said… you mean like a couple hundred bucks or something? He kinda nodded his head, because he was trying to be a little careful, and he nodded his head. Yeah, yeah that would work. Maybe a little more, here and there," the client recalled about the conversation in a back office at A Change last summer.
The firm said the two separate incidents involved the same drug and alcohol counselor. KING 5 is not naming that counselor because he has not been charged with any crime. Washington Department of Health records show that he was issued a license as a "trainee" counselor in May of 2014.
The client said he paid the counselor $600 to avoid the hassles of going back to court to prove he was not drinking. He says he completed all of his classes, as required by the court.
Even the counselor himself said money was improperly changing hands behind the walls of A Change – but he said he wasn't involved.
"I have never taken any money from any clients ever," the counselor told KING 5. "It's unethical. It's against the law, number one," he said.
In two interviews with KING 5, the counselor accused another A Change employee of taking $3,000 from a client and reporting to the court that the client successfully completed treatment.
"She did his compliance reports. (She) made sure he was in compliance for the court," said the counselor.
The counselor said he was fired by A Change when he tried to report the scheme to owner Clarence Farmer.
Records show A Change has been investigated at least four times in the last six years.
In 2008 the Washington Departments of Health and Social and Health Services focused an investigation on Clarence Farmer.
The wife of a DUI suspect in Moses Lake reported that her husband paid Farmer $2,000, and in return was not required to attend treatment classes. In a document filed with the state, the woman said Farmer admitted to taking the money and falsifying her husband's treatment reports to the court.
Investigators wrote in their report that Farmer and A Change "have repeatedly refused to cooperate" with their investigation into the woman's claims.
The complaint was filed by Grant County Prosecutor Teddy Chow, after he was contacted by the defendant's wife.
"It's extremely serious, because it affects public safety directly. These are untreated addicts who are motoring on the public roadway," Chow said.
Chow said one thing that made the case suspicious is that the defendant, who lived in Moses Lake, would sign up for weekly treatment cases at a clinic in Tacoma.
"It's already inconvenient enough as it is, why would you drive halfway across the state for treatment that is potentially three days a week?," Chow asked.
In 2013, an A Change client said her drug evaluation was mysteriously altered so that she was suddenly required to attend more treatment sessions.
A Change counselor Kathy Dastrup, who had been treating the woman, denied that she changed the evaluation and said that someone had forged her signature.
In interviews with a Department of Health investigator, Dastrup said "this agency is ‘shady' and all the people in it are in ‘cahoots' with other ‘shady' providers," according to the official DOH report.
In both investigations, DOH and DSHS determined there was "insufficient evidence" to take any action against A Change.
In 2014 a DSHS investigation resulted in a rare punishment for A Change. In that case, investigators "substantiated" complaints that A Change counselors reported to the court that two clients were in "full compliance" – even though the clients were nowhere near the clinic at the time they were purportedly receiving counseling.
Investigators determined that one of the clients was "out of the country" and the other "wasn't aware that it was required" that he attend treatment, according to DSHS records.
There was no allegation of bribery in this complaint, but DSHS fined A Change $1,000. That's the maximum penalty for a "substantiated complaint investigation," according to DSHS.
In 2014, the Tacoma Municipal Court took matters into its own hands. The court conducted its own investigation and tried to work with A Change staff to correct the clinic's chronic late-filing of official documents and counselors' filing of inaccurate treatment reports to the court.
When the problems continued, the court removed A Change from its counseling clinic referral list. In a January 23, 2015, cancellation letter, Judge Elizabeth Verhey told A Change that its shortcomings were "not only a disservice to the court but to the clients you serve."
A Change Counseling Services has been licensed DSHS – through the division of Behavioral Health and Recovery – since 2005.
A Change Counseling Services is the second clinic posted on an alphabetical list of approved drug and alcohol treatment clinics that the Pierce County court system provides to offenders who are ordered by a judge to seek treatment.
Clarence Farmer declined to speak with KING 5.
"My lawyer told me not to talk to you guys, so I'm not going to talk to you. OK?" Farmer said in a brief phone call. He also declined to be interviewed when KING 5 visited the clinic.
"I don't want to talk to you," Farmer said as he walked past a KING 5 reporter.
Judge Ronald Culpepper, who relied on A Change's compliance reports when he sentenced Kathy Bisbee's husband in 2014, said he could not comment directly about A Change.
But he said more investigation is warranted.
"If that's happening out there, it should stop and we should certainly not allow that clinic to participate at all," Judge Culpepper said.
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Kathy Bisbee's husband
Bisbee's husband denied that he paid off Clarence Farmer. He called Kathy Bisbee "vindictive" and a "liar" in a phone interview with KING 5.
He said that he has been in Alcoholics Anonymous since his 2013 DUI and "I have not drank since my incident."
Pierce County court records tell a different story.
A violation report filed with Judge Culpepper's court shows that Bisbee's husband failed a breath test on the Interlock ignition device on his truck on May 8, 2015 – about a month after he supposedly completed treatment at A Change.
He pleaded "guilty" to the violation in July.
Kathy Bisbee says she told the Pierce County prosecutor about the scheme – and informed the Lewis County court in the domestic violence petition she filled out against her husband.
But she says no one took action.
"I think they regarded me as the crazy ex-wife," she said.
Bisbee can only wonder how things would have been different if her husband had received professional help.
"The guy really needed help with his drinking, and he didn't get it and now we're divorced," she said.
-- Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter:@CJIngalls
This story was first published on March 7, 2016.