PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A former Multnomah County investigator who was told to shut up when he alerted his bosses to reports of patient abuse at a new regional psychiatric emergency ward has sued the county for $1.1. million.
The suit by Greg Monaco, a longtime county mental health investigator, says county managers subjected him to “intolerable” working conditions due to his raising of concerns about patient safety at Legacy’s Unity Center for Behavioral Health, “pressuring” him to take early retirement — which he did in July 2018.
The lawsuit was filed shortly after the county fired two top mental health managers, one of whom is named in Monaco’s suit alleging whistleblower retaliation.
Some parts of the suit are familiar. They allude to the findings of patient abuse at Unity Center detailed by a scathing state report released in response to a Portland Tribune records request. They also echo an August 2018 Tribune article detailing how after Unity complained about him, Monaco’s managers had told him more than a year before to stop raising concerns of patient mistreatment and neglect at Unity Center, which began operations in 2017.
But the suit also goes into more detail about the pressure that led him to retire two years early, such as his boss asking him, “When are you going to retire?”
David Hidalgo, the recently fired head of the mental health division, initially told the Tribune last August he had no knowledge of Monaco’s complaints and appeared to dismiss them, saying “context is everything.” He claimed the county lacked authority to investigate the complaints.
This, county officials realized, turned out not to be true, documents and interviews show. Chair Deborah Kafoury eventually ordered a full investigation of the county’s handling of complaints, including whether county managers had acted unlawfully.
That investigation, headed by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, is ongoing. In December the Tribune first reported that a preliminary review found 16 reports of patient abuse at Unity Center should have been shared by county managers with police for criminal investigation, but were not.
Now Monaco’s suit details how he’d visited Unity Center shortly after it opened in January 2017 and “observed significant problems with the facility in areas including structure, staffing, staff training, and other areas threatening patient safety. From the time of opening and continuing thereafter, Monaco heard Unity nurses raise
complaints about understaffing, poor management, inappropriate injections, and safety concerns, as well as a culture of retaliation against any nurses who complained about health and safety risks faced by patients and staff. Nurses related to Monaco how no positive action appeared to be taken by Unity in response to internal staff complaints.”
After receiving similar complaints from Unity employees, state investigators at first found the facility’s poor design, management and staffing presented such a hazard to patients that it might have to be shut down.
But later in the year the state and federal regulators concluded that Legacy’s safety improvements at the mental health facility were adequate to allow it to remain in operation.
Monaco’s suit says he had repeatedly urged county managers to address similar concerns, only to be told that Unity was “too big to fail.”
On March 27, the county issued letters of termination to Hidalgo and quality assurance manager Joan Rice, who’d both been on leave pending the investigation.
“I have determined that your continued employment is no longer in the best interests of Multnomah County,” wrote Marissa Madrigal, the county’s chief operations officer, in the letters.
On the same day, the county named the mental health division’s deputy director, Ebony Clarke, to replace Hidalgo.