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Dispute with mental health CEO takes a strange twist

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published January 18. 2013 4:00AM

New London - The head of the region's largest provider of outpatient mental health services for adults has told state officials monitoring the agency that she will not meet with them in person because she believes her life is in danger, and she has also authorized her agency to hire a private investigator.

In addition to client care issues, Sound Community Services, which is supported mostly by state and federal funds, has also weathered a recent state audit. But state scrutiny of its finances is continuing.

Gail Lawson, chief executive officer of the New London-based Sound Community Services since 2005, did not respond to phone and email messages requesting comment.

Jane Cable of Old Lyme, the newly elected chairwoman of the agency's Board of Directors, did not respond directly to a question about the safety concerns or other questions about Sound Community Services, but did issue a brief statement.

"The board and staff of Sound Community Services continue to work with DMHAS to improve services for the population who need our services," she said in an email, referring to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

James Siemianowski, spokesman for DMHAS, said Lawson told Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Southeastern Mental Health Authority, a division of DMHAS, about her safety concerns.

With about 700 clients, Sound Community Services has an annual budget of about $10 million that is supported mainly by state and federal funds. On Dec. 3, the state began monitoring the agency because of client care issues after 400 Sound Community Services clients received letters in November telling them to seek care elsewhere because the agency did not have staff to administer psychiatric medications or write prescriptions for them.

Sound Community Services was directed to submit a corrective action plan to the state. The plan was to address both the client care issues and "staff development and morale," Siemianowski said.

"Gail has told us that she has concerns that her life is in danger. We don't know any more than that," Siemianowski said Wednesday. "We are encouraging her to join any meetings with us via telephone, because we feel her presence is essential as we begin this plan of corrective action. We've also told her she needs to make the proper authorities aware" of her safety concerns.

New London police have not received any recent complaints from Lawson, according to Deputy Chief Peter Reichard. She did, however, file a complaint in January 2012; the nature of that complaint could not be determined Thursday. The report on the complaint contains "uncorroborated allegations," according to New London police, and therefore cannot be released to the public.

On Aug. 27, Agnello Investigations of Groton was hired by Sound Community Services to conduct an internal investigation, according to information obtained by The Day. The firm was paid a $2,500 retainer and would charge $85 per hour, according to the information.

The hiring of Agnello Investigations came eight days after The Day published an article about leadership and high staff turnover issues at Sound Community Services that came to light in a letter from 21 former employees to the Board of Directors.

Siemianowski said it is "highly unusual" for an agency such as Sound Community Services to hire a private investigator.

DMHAS also began an investigation of fiscal management at the agency. William Quinn, director of the audit division of DMHAS, said his audit of the agency concluded that some senior administrators who were also doing independent consulting work for Qualifacts, an electronic medical records firm that produces the CareLogic system, were being paid more from state funds than was allowed. The agency was told to develop a correction plan and methods to prevent recurrence, Quinn said.

Lawson, who is paid $135,000 in annual salary and benefits, appealed the audit findings and hired the auditing firm of CohnReznick of Glastonbury to conduct an independent review.

"Based on their testwork, they were comfortable that all the costs related to the independent consulting practice were not charged to DMHAS," Quinn said. "We retracted the request for a corrective action plan, based on those assurances."

The reviews of Sound Community Services' finances, however, are ongoing. Quinn said the State Auditors' Office is now looking at "different information" than he did, including payroll records.

The current review "is not an audit per se," said John Geragosian, state auditor. His office began the review in response to a whistle-blower complaint, he said. Conclusions of the review will be submitted to the Attorney General's Office, he said.

Siemianowski said this week that DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer has contacted Cable, the new chairwoman of the Sound Community Services' board, "to make sure she (Cable) was aware of our continuing concerns." Cable recently replaced K. Michael Talbot of Groton as leader of the board of the private, nonprofit agency. The 12-member board, comprised of residents of local towns from Old Saybrook to Mystic, is charged with oversight of the agency.

"We wanted to ensure that the new leadership was briefed on our concerns and wanted to make sure there is a transfer of information," Siemianowski said.

Since DMHAS began monitoring the agency in early December, state officials have had weekly face-to-face meetings with senior leadership at Sound Community Services, he said, but Lawson has not been present.

"We've underscored the importance of her being involved," he said.

DMHAS is also receiving daily reports from Sound Community Services and is pleased with progress it has made in contacting most of the 400 clients who received the letters in November, he said. Appointments have been scheduled for most of those clients who need medication monitoring and prescription renewals, he said.

One full-time and one part-time prescriber and a full-time psychiatrist have been hired in the last month to serve those patients, Siemianowski said.

"We feel like there's been good progress in addressing the concerns we had about prioritizing patients and dealing with the backlog," he said.

DMHAS, he said, will continue "close contact" with Sound Community Services at least until the end of its current contracts with DMHAS in June, "to ensure they maintain the changes."

"We will continue to monitor aggressively," he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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