Two state workers charged with reviewing the operations of state-licensed drug and alcohol treatment centers say KING 5’s ongoing investigation into corrupt clinics correctly revealed failures in oversight by the agency charged with policing the treatment industry.
One of those workers, Tammy Wright, cited as an example an investigation she worked on that turned up forged documents at a licensed drug and alcohol treatment center in Spanaway called “Abracadabra.”
“I had to gather myself because I was absolutely shocked,” said Wright.
Wright had discovered forged documents certifying to the court that offenders were receiving their required treatment. She says a counselor trainee admitted to signing the name of the counselor who was supposed to be treating the clients.
“I think people go to jail for forgery, don’t they? That’s how I look at it. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ And these are records that are going to the court,” said Wright.
Wright was concerned that offenders may not be receiving proper substance abuse treatment – or perhaps no treatment at all. But she said her investigation was stopped cold by people she thought were her allies – her own bosses at the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery (DBHR), a division within the massive Department of Social and Health Services.
“I was stunned,” said Wright.
DBHR’s Deputy Director informed Wright that she and the agency’s complaint manager would not be allowed to continue their investigation of Abracadabra or any of their other clinics managed by the same Pierce County owner.
Wright’s 2011 investigation was halted after Abracadabra’s lawyers complained to DBHR senior management, according to witness interviews and documents.
KING 5’s ongoing “Sobriety for Sale” investigation has revealed that DBHR management settled cases, reduced violations and even pulled investigators – like Wright and DBHR’s complaint manager Ron Moorhead – off cases when treatment agencies complain or threaten legal action.
Mary Testa-Smith, a 20-year DBHR inspector, said the same thing happened to her and her supervisor when they investigated a Spokane clinic last year.
Testa-Smith said she and her supervisor discovered that a client at the Spokane clinic had failed a half-dozen drugs tests, including one test that showed the client had recently used methamphetamine. Testa-Smith’s investigation found that the clinic did not report those positive test results to the court or the Washington State Department of Licensing.
As a result, the repeat DUI driver is on the road today.
“It’s a mockery of treatment,” said Testa-Smith. “I don’t understand what’s gone on the last couple of years, like we’ve given up our integrity or something.”
Until recently, both Testa-Smith and Wright were DBHR certification specialists, members of the five-person team that licenses and inspects 570 drug and alcohol treatment centers in Washington.
Testa-Smith retired earlier this year; Wright, who served 10 years as a certification specialist, quit to take a new job.
“When attorneys start objecting and questioning it seems like DBHR just kind of gives up,” said Testa-Smith.
Both former employees say DBHR appears to be fearful of lawsuits threatened by clinics and counselors who face violations that could result in fines or loss of license.
“It hurts families, individuals and society if our work is not supported and not done,” said Wright.
Both employees say DBHR’s deputy director and an assistant attorney general are behind the decisions to settle cases.
A settlement with the Spokane clinic resulted in a reduced fine, fewer violations, no action against the repeat DUI offender who failed the drug test, and a restoration of the clinic’s operating license – which Testa-Smith and her supervisor had attempted to revoke. All of that, in addition to removing experienced investigators Testa-Smith and her supervisor, Julian Gonzales, from investigating the clinic any further.
“Dennis Malmer is the one who signed the agreement,” said Testa-Smith.
Malmer also removed Tammy Wright from her 2011 forgery investigation.
In an interview last year, Malmer said it was not unusual or improper to swap employees if a clinic complained.
“We don’t stop investigations at all. We can out staff members, and we’ve done that in the past and continue to do that. It wasn’t because somebody sought legal counsel,” Malmer said.
Malmer said investigations were hindered by reluctant witnesses and a lack of evidence, not because of legal threats by the clinics.
Testa-Smith and Wright said Malmer’s decisions were made in consultation with an attorney in the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who represents DBHR.
Assistant AG Robert Antanaitis did not respond to a request for a comment. Media spokesperson Brionna Aho said, “To respond to your request, we defer to our client (DBHR).”
Wright said she was especially heartbroken to learn from a KING 5 story last year about continuing problems with counselor Kathy Dastrup, the Pierce County woman Wright accused of allowing a trainee to forge her signatures.
One of Dastrup’s clients drove the wrong way and hit and killed an innocent driver on Seattle’s State Route 520 bridge in 2013. A KING 5 story reported that Dastrup was accused of taking cash payments from clients and not requiring them to pay treatment. Driver Michael Robertson, who was drinking whiskey as he drove the wrong way down SR 520 in 2013, was one of her clients.
Wright wonders if the fatal crash caused by Robertson would have been averted if the state had acted on her case against Dastrup two years earlier.
“It was very personal to me and I saw your story on that and I cried,” Wright said. “What happened to her was so wrong, and you can never make it right.
-- Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.