DSHS wants an investigation of its own drug treatment agency

DSHS asked the State Patrol to look into allegations the DSHS intervened to protect clinics suspected of defrauding patients.

Allegations by a former supervisor at the state agency that regulates Washington's 580 licensed drug and alcohol treatment centers triggered a State Patrol investigation.

Julian Gonzales, a 25-year employee for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Service's Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery (DBHR), said his superiors intervened to protect treatment clinics believed to be committing fraud against patients. As documented in KING 5's "Sobriety for Sale" series, some clinics were engaged in a variety of fraudulent activities, from soliciting bribes from patients to falsifying lab test results submitted to the courts.

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"(They) pretty much undermined everything we were doing," Gonzales said. "We lost all our credibility."

Gonzales says DSHS senior managers went so far as to break the law, and that claim prompted DSHS to ask the Washington State Patrol to investigate the allegations. The call for a WSP investigation came only after DSHS upper management learned that Gonzales was speaking to KING 5 and Washington lawmakers.

During much of his career in state government, Gonzales was the supervisor in charge of the half dozen employees who conduct inspections at treatment clinics. He said DBHR has lost all its experienced inspectors over the past year, including Gonzales who retired in 2017.

"Most of them left because of disillusionment with the way things were going," he said.

Gonzales says many of the problems identified in KING 5's "Sobriety for Sale" investigation can be traced back to senior DSHS management and the Washington Attorney General's Office.

The stories showed how DBHR investigated - but failed to penalize - several questionable clinics when owners and counselors were accused of accepting bribes from clients and falsifying court records to indicate that clients were receiving court ordered treatment.

"It's demoralizing when your upper management comes in and sabotages the work that you're doing," said Gonzales.

Gonzales points to Lakeside Recovery in Spokane (not affiliated with the Lakeside Milam chain). During a 2016 inspection, he says he turned up six instances where counselors at Lakeside did not report clients' positive drug tests to the Spokane Superior Court. There was no evidence that bribes were being paid, and Gonzales couldn't explain why so many positive tests went unreported.

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"(Our) department must revoke their license. It says in the RCW you must do that," said Gonzales. He cited a Washington law that requires DBHR to revoke a clinic's license if it fails to report three positive drug tests in a year. His reports said Lakeside had six.

Gonzales says DSHS Deputy Director Dennis Malmer asked him to re-write his report and reduce the number of violations. That would allow Lakeside to keep its license.

Gonzales said he refused. After that, he says someone else re-wrote the report and reduced the number of violations from six to one. The change allowed a repeat DUI offender - who should have been punished for failing multiple drug tests - to get his driver's license back from the Washington Department of Licensing.

"I think it's unconscionable," Gonzales said. By altering his report and reducing violations, Gonzales said DBHR officials broke a very clear Washington law.

Gonzales believes Malmer and Assistant Attorney General Robert Antanaitis backed down from the case after Lakeside's lawyer intervened.

"(It was) out of some kind of fear of attorneys, which I don't get. We had the Attorney General's Office (on our side)," said Gonzales.

Other former state inspectors told KING 5 similar stories last year. Tammy Wright, Mary Testa-Smith, and Brian Barr all said they saw solid investigations go down the drain when treatment clinics facing serious violations called in their attorneys and threatened legal action against the state.

"It's a mockery of treatment," said Testa-Smith, who worked for the state 20 years before retiring last year.

Lakeside Recovery would not agree to an on-camera interview, but in 2016 a Lakeside spokesperson said that Gonzales and DBHR had misinterpreted records and there were no serious violations at the clinic. (KING 5's extensive review of the case files did not find any records of additional evidence supplied by the clinic, or an explanation from DSHS about why the number of violations was reduced).

DSHS Chief of Staff Avanulas Smiley said the Lakeside Recovery casework was reviewed by senior managers before any decision were made.

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"There's a robust review process before a clinic's license is revoked. And I believe DBHR exercised that process," Smiley said.

However, Smiley acknowledged that a recently completed internal review uncovered many "red flags" about DBHR.

Ordered late last year "...under heavy scrutiny in the media," auditors found "...47 percent of (drug treatment) agencies past due..." for their three-year inspections, a "lack of training" for staff and a slow response to complaints about clinics. Auditors found 33 separate deficiencies.

"If I could go back and do one thing again, it would be moving faster on issues, moving faster on allegations," said Smiley.

One of the review's shortcomings, though, is that auditors did not speak with Gonzales or any of the other former employees who have publicly aired their criticisms of DBHR.

Smiley said auditors did not seek comment from the inspectors because the audit was intended to review processes only.

However, after DSHS realized that Gonzales had spoken with KING 5 and state Sen. Randi Becker (R-Enumclaw), senior administrators asked the State Patrol to investigate Gonzales's claims. That investigation launched late last year and is expected to be concluded soon.

DBHR also notes that the decision to reverse Gonzales's recommendations in the Lakeside Recovery case were backed by an attorney for the state Attorney General's Office.

Brionna Aho, a spokesperson for the Washington State Attorney General's Office, said "our attorneys provide options-based advice" to clients and that a review of assistant attorney general's work in the Spokane case found that he "...acted in accordance with the expectations and the high standards of this office."