CEDAR CITY – A former Iron County Ambulance paramedic recently settled a whistleblower lawsuit that was wrapped up in federal court for more than three years.
Bridget Larsen has been locked in a legal battle with Iron County since December 2013. Larsen recently settled the suit via mediation for an undisclosed amount.
The case was dismissed on court records and the details of the settlement is unavailable. Cedar City News has submitted record requests to multiple agencies to confirm the public funds used toward the settlement.
Larsen claimed she was fired for trying to point out dangerous issues and fraudulent billing practices in the then-Iron County Ambulance Service, managed at the time by Sheriff Mark Gower. Gower and his former Sheriff’s Lt. Jody Edwards, who was then overseeing the ambulance service, were also named in the civil action filed in U.S. District Court.
The former paramedic alleged in her complaint that Gower and Edwards violated her First Amendment rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act by creating an internal policy in 2012 that prevented her from going public with the issues of wrongdoing.
“Larsen and other employees of Iron County must be free to speak out without fear of retaliation or termination,” the complaint states.
Larsen claimed in the suit she was later fired for complaining to the sheriff and Edwards that the ambulance was not following response configuration laws that sets requirements for paramedic staffing, billing, equipment and medications.
Among these were claims that the ambulance service did not always have two paramedics on scene as required under Utah code. Larson also claimed the equipment on the trucks was not always functional and they were missing necessary medications.
Her complaint alleges these unresolved issues led to several deaths in the county by patients she maintains may have been saved had the equipment and run configurations complied with the law.
Gower later acknowledged these issues during a 2014 meeting where he was explaining the increased debt to the ambulance service budget since taking the department over from the former director Ron Johnson in 2012.
The debt in the ambulance service grew by nearly $2 million under Gower. He told commissioners at the time that he had inherited a sinking ship with trucks that were lacking necessary equipment and medications, needed repairs, and were not up to code. He argued with commissioners then that the debt came from having to bring the ambulance service into compliance that he felt put Iron County residents at risk.
“Most of these allegations of wrongdoing were before I took over the ambulance service. The primary issue under my administration was the run configuration, which I inherited,” Gower said. “We fixed the problem after I became aware of it, which is why we had to spend the money we did at the time.”
Johnson resigned in 2012 amid several allegations including sexual harassment and grant fraud.
The plaintiff also claimed the ambulance service was involved in grant fraud by lying on applications in order to receive more money than they would have otherwise received. Other former ambulance employees made the same charges, according to Larsen’s complaint.
“As to fraudulent grant writing, plaintiff answers that she became aware that Iron County used the names of former and non-county employees to falsify grant applications by including such names for purposes of per capita calculations,” court documents state.
Larsen also maintained that the ambulance service defrauded patients by inflating bills for services not received such as having paramedics on scene who were not there at the time medical assistance was provided.
Gower and Edwards were asked by Larsen to investigate these issues and the likely deaths of certain patients as a result of the service being out of state compliance but instead she was “subjected to adverse employment action, demotion, reduction in job duties, lost job responsibilities, suspension without pay, and the eventual termination of her employment on June 19, 2013,” the complaint states.
A copy of Edwards’ termination letter to Larsen, included in the court docket, however counters these claims by detailing ongoing issues with the plaintiff including allegations of dishonesty and insubordination.
“A productive work environment cannot exist when a supervisor cannot trust an employee, especially in the field of emergency response,” court documents state. “Based on your dishonest behavior, I cannot trust you. This jeopardizes the ability of Iron County Ambulance to operate effectively. It also jeopardizes the citizens of Iron County. This cannot be tolerated or allowed to continue.”
Gower however said he had no say in Larsen’s termination but was completely alienated from the process.
“I was told due to the complexity of her termination and the potential for a lawsuit that the human resource director and the county attorneys office would handle it,” Gower said. “I was not allowed to be involved.”
The county put the management of the ambulance service under the sheriff in 2012 in order to resolve ongoing issues. Former Commissioner Dave Miller told St. George News in March 2014, just four months after Larsen had filed her suit, that he felt Gower and Edwards had corrected many of the problems. The commissioners voted later that same year to sell the ambulance service to Gold Cross Ambulance.
Cedar City News contacted both the lead attorney in Larsen’s case, Roger Hoole, and Iron County’s Attorney, Kristen Vanorman, for comment but both declined citing the confidential clause in the settlement that prevents them from discussing the outcome of the suit.
Hoole did say, however, that he and his client were pleased with the settlement and felt they achieved their objectives including exposing the issues, fixing the problems that the ambulance service had at the time, and ultimately receiving financial compensation.
Ed. Note: Comments from Sheriff Mark Gower were added to the story after it was published to reflect his side.
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