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New leadership in place at troubled Sound Community Services

By Judy Benson

Publication: theday.com

Published 04/16/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 04/17/2013 09:23 AM
Sound Community Services under audit

New London — Gail Lawson, the chief executive officer of Sound Community Services since 2005, left the agency Monday night after a Board of Directors meeting that ended with city police being called to the offices at 21 Montauk Ave. and staying on the premises for nearly an hour.

On Tuesday, Lance Niles, the nonprofit mental health agency's corporate compliance officer, would say only that there has been "a leadership change" and that the board would issue a statement later this week.

"We are forward focused," Niles said.

Lawson's departure comes about five weeks after The Day reviewed copies of the agency's credit card statements that showed Lawson and two other employees had charged more than $222,000 in expenses for airplane flights, hotel stays, restaurant meals and retail purchases over an 18-month period.

Jean Miner of Lyme, the former Sound Community Services clinician who served as spokeswoman for a group of former employees who initially wrote to the board about high turnover and tyrannical management at the agency, said Tuesday she was pleased with the developments.

"The board finally did what it is supposed to do," she said. "Now the agency can begin to heal and move forward for the sake of the clients and dedicated staff. I hope the board will never again turn a blind eye when concerns about Sound are brought to them."

According to agency sources who asked to remain unnamed, a trio of administrators — Niles, Jessica DeFlumer-Trapp, the director of community support, and Gino DeMaio, the director of residential/housing services — has been put in charge of the agency. Employees were told by their supervisors Tuesday about Lawson's departure, and that Niles, DeFlumer-Trapp and DeMaio would conduct an all-staff meeting Friday, according to the sources.

Neither board Chairwoman Jane Cable nor Lawson, a Foster, R.I., resident, could be reached to comment.

Two city police officers were called to Sound Community Services' administrative offices at about 8:40 p.m. Monday, according to Deputy Chief Peter Reichard. He had no additional information.

Sound Community Services has been under state scrutiny since this summer for financial and management issues raised by the group of former employees in a letter to the board, and in a whistleblower complaint to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

DMHAS began monitoring the agency this winter over client care issues involving a lack of medical staff to prescribe and administer psychiatric medications, among other concerns. A provider of outpatient psychiatric services for about 700 adults, Sound Community Services receives most of its $10 million annual budget from state and federal funds.

After the DMHAS review, the state Auditors of Public Accounts began examining statements of agency credit cards issued to Lawson and two other top administrators, Informatics Officer Christopher "Heath" Bish and Chief Financial Officer Cindy Kirchhoff. The auditors also began reviewing information about an electronic medical records consulting business being run out of the agency by Lawson and Bish. The review is not concluded, state auditor John Gerogosian said Tuesday. The employment status of Bish and Kirchhoff was unclear on Tuesday.

The Day also obtained payroll records that showed the three received a combined $50,000 in additional earnings on top of their regular pay. Lawson's annual salary is $135,000, while Kirchhoff is paid $107,000 and Bish makes $99,000 annually.

In a statement Tuesday, DMHAS said it has been informed that Lawson is no longer the chief executive officer of Sound. DMHAS said it will work closely with the board and the new senior leadership to ensure an orderly transition.

DMHAS involvement in the situation includes a visit to the agency about a month ago by Deputy Commissioner Paul DiLeo, during which he met with senior staff, as well as phone conversations between DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer and Cable.

DMHAS said that if the auditors' investigation concludes that revenue from the consulting business was used inappropriately, it would take "immediate corrective steps."

"DMHAS will continue to actively monitor Sound Community Services to ensure that the state programs run by Sound Community Services are meeting the needs of the department's clients," the statement said.

The departure of Lawson is a positive and overdue step to bring issues at Sound Community Services toward resolution, said Robert Davidson, executive director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board.

"It took so long because Gail was a hard bargainer," he said. "She's a very tough businesswoman, and for a while that was her strength. The most important thing now is that she's gone and the agency can rebuild."

j.benson@theday.com

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