State went easy on troubled treatment clinic, records say

New questions arise about the state agency that investigates troubled drug clinics.

Mark Tatham was enrolled in a licensed drug treatment clinic as part of a court order handed down after he was arrested for drunk driving in 2014. 

Tatham, a repeat offender with five arrests for drunk driving, was just one of thousands of people in Washington ordered by courts to receive treatment for substance abuse -- a step often taken in hopes of lightening penalties or earning back a suspended license.

But when state inspectors reviewed records from the Spokane clinic where Tatham was enrolled, they found something troubling in his file: Tatham had been caught using drugs six times during his five month enrollment at Lakeside Recovery Center (which is not affiliated with the Lakeside-Milam chain). Court-ordered drug tests – administered by his Lakeside counselor – were positive for marijuana, opiates and methamphetamine.

But the positive drug tests were never reported to the court as required by Tatham’s counselor, according to  records of the inspection conducted by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

It’s the type of violation that would allow DSHS to revoke Lakeside Recovery's chemical dependency treatment license.

However, a KING 5 investigation uncovered questionable decisions by state regulators that allowed the Lakeside to stay open – even though the clinic has been under scrutiny for three years for failing to meet state standards.

KING 5 also found that the state failed to forward information about the failed drug tests to the state Department of Licensing, information the agency could have used to block Tatham from getting his driver’s license back.

Unaware of his continued drug use, DOL returned Tatham’s driver’s license in May. He told KING 5 he’s been driving ever since.

“Yes. I’m sober and straight,” Tatham said when contacted at his Spokane home.

The case file of the Lakeside Recovery Center investigation raises questions about the effectiveness of DSHS’s Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery (DBHR),  which regulates 570 drug and alcohol treatment clinics statewide.

In its “Sobriety for Sale” investigations, KING 5 reported on numerous complaints reported to DBHR about troubled treatment clinics whose counselors were accused of taking cash bribes from their clients.    

In those cases, DBHR failed to take substantive action. And when clinic operators complained about specific state inspectors, the agency sided with the clinics reassigning the investigators.

DBHR’s handling of the Lakeside Recovery investigation is more evidence of a pattern of how the state handles these cases.

“I sincerely believe that allowing this program to continue to provide services given their historic and continued lack of compliance with minimum standards would be detrimental (to patients and the public),” DBHR supervisor Julian Gonzales wrote in an email to his superiors.

Gonzales issued a license revocation notice to Lakeside Recovery after he and another investigator uncovered six unreported drug tests involving Tatham and another client.

But in a settlement offered by DBHR and the Attorney General’s Office two months later, the state agreed to drop all of the counts involving Tatham. The state agreed not to forward Tatham’s information to any agency that could “investigate or prosecute” Tatham – including the Department of Licensing.

DBHR also dropped $1,250 in fines, then removed Gonzales and the other DBHR investigator who uncovered all the unreported drug tests from participating in future inspections at Lakeside.

The settlement agreement followed complaints by Lakeside’s lawyer about DBHR’s handling of the investigation into his client.

Lakeside Executive Director Chris Mullen backed out of a scheduled on-camera interview with KING 5 in October.

In phone conversations he said state investigators made several errors during their audits of his clinic. And he said  positive drug tests were routinely reported to the court, and Tatham himself said that, to his knowledge, all of his positive drug tests were reported to the court.

If that’s true, records in DBHR’s case file don’t reflect that.

In other similar clinic investigations investigated by KING 5, DBHR agreed to settlements after the clinics' attorneys appealed sanctions or threatened other legal action.

In an interview in July, DBHR Deputy Director Dennis Malmer denied that legal threats from lawyers resulted in cushy settlements for troublesome clinics.

“It wasn’t because somebody sought legal counsel. Some people do and some people don’t,” Malmer told KING 5. “Whether they seek legal counsel or not is really not relevant to me,” Malmer said.

But one person who wonders why the state didn’t take action against Lakeside Recovery center is the woman who was married to Mark Tatham.

“I think it’s terrible. If definitely not in Mark’s best interest at all,” said Tatham’s ex-wife, whom we agreed not to identify for this story.

She says drugs and alcohol stopped Tatham from being “the wonderful, beautiful person I know he is.”

"I’m shocked that places like Lakeside that he trusted to help him through this process have not been above board,” she said.

She also blamed state regulators.

“He abused the system. But I’m sorry. Now the system is abusing Mark right back,” she said.

DBHR records do not reflect any suspicion that Lakeside Recovery Center counselors solicited bribes from clients, as was alleged to be happening at other clinics covered in the KING 5 investigation.

Investigators said it appeared the positive drug tests at Lakeside weren’t reported because counselors there are inexperienced and overwhelmed.

Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.

Copyright 2016 KING


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