Head of state psychiatric hospitals under investigation for sexual harassment

SAN FRANCISCO — The executive recruited two years ago to correct deep-seated problems at the state’s mental hospitals is the subject of a sexual harassment investigation that was launched within a week of her state Senate confirmation, according to two independent sources with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

Kathy Gaither, chief deputy director of the Department of State Hospitals, has been on paid administrative leave since July 15. In a brief email last month to notify employees, Cliff Allenby, the department’s acting director, said Gaither would be out of the office for an extended period because of “unforeseen circumstances.”

According to the sources, complaints against Gaither lodged by two subordinates are being probed by the legal firm of Shaw Valenza. The firm lists among its available services the “high-level investigation” of workplace issues for state agencies.

State hospital executive: An article in the Aug. 23 LATExtra section about an investigation of Department of State Hospitals Chief Deputy Director Kathy Gaither said a complaint had been sent to higher-ups in December 2012. The complaint was sent in May of this year. —

The complaints include allegations of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, the sources said. They asked not to be identified because they said they feared retribution.

Gaither and Allenby last month declined to comment on the reason for her leave, noting that personnel matters are confidential. Gaither did not respond to a call this week for comment.

The first complaint was relayed to human resource officials at the Department of State Hospitals shortly after Gaither’s Senate confirmation July 8 and was forwarded to the Health and Human Services Agency. The second complaint followed soon after.

Four current and former state hospital employees said that numerous members of Gaither’s top management team previously had shared concerns about her management style with Allenby, as well as with agency officials. There was no apparent follow-up.

More than a dozen members of the management team have left since Gaither — who began her state service in 1975 as a student assistant and has held high-level positions in several state departments — came on board.

She was recruited in May 2011 as interim chief deputy director of the hospitals department, and last year was appointed permanently to the position by Gov. Jerry Brown. The post required Senate confirmation.

A copy of a December 2012 complaint to Allenby and agency officials from one high-level staff member, which was reviewed by The Times, expressed “serious concern” about “a pattern of behavior” exhibited by Gaither, including “rude,” “disrespectful” and “punitive” treatment of subordinates.

The “disrespectful bullying communication” with key department leaders, the complaint said, “imperils the improvements in our system, could easily lead to key staff leaving their positions just when we need them and has already led to poorly thought-out decision-making.”

Gaither took the day-to-day helm of the department at a time of low hospital staff morale due to violent assaults by patients, including the strangulation death of a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital.

Her leave comes at a sensitive time for the department, which is emerging from years of federal oversight at four of its hospitals that corresponded with the rising violence and an erosion of treatment in key areas. (The court-ordered oversight has been lifted at all but one hospital, where it remains in only one area of focus.)

To bridge the department’s nearly $200-million budget gap, Gaither — who spent nearly 20 years at the Department of Finance — slashed positions, reduced clinical staffing per patient and abandoned a number of treatment reforms at the hospitals that had been deemed cumbersome, ineffective or too costly.

Records from the state controller’s office indicate that Gaither received a pay raise on Aug. 6, three weeks after she was placed on leave and a month after her Senate confirmation. Her monthly pay was increased from $12,305 to $12,674.

Source: Lee Romney, “Harassment allegations against California hospital official probed,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2013.

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