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Outfoxed In the District

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 5, 2008

Excerpts from the transcript of a videotaped deposition of a former Howard University Hospital emergency room physician, conducted Aug. 3, 2007:

Physician: "When I came upon him, I asked what was wrong with the patient to a nearby nurse, and where is the chart, and looked at the chart rack. The nurse had not seen a chart and there was no chart on the chart rack."

Question: What did she say to you at that point?

He is just an alcoholic, and I don't know where the chart is or something close to that, but I remember her telling me that he was an alcoholic.

Tell me about the conversation you had with this nurse about the [Emergency Medical Services] stretcher?

I just asked why was the patient there on that stretcher in the hallway and not-[sic] entered into a dialogue about him having vomit on his clothing.

What did you say about the vomit on his clothing?

It is hard for me to recall specifically what I said. I just remember the general conversation, that this patient should not be on that stretcher, and cleaned up, if indeed he is an alcoholic, you know.

Do you remember anything that the nurse said back to you about either the stretcher or the vomit?

Specifics, no, but she basically did not want to help to transfer the patient because she was busy doing other things. You know, they were short staffed.

Do you remember anything she said that gave you that impression?

She said she wasn't able to transfer him right now, that he was just an alcoholic.

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of an event that some folks in the District would just as soon let pass without notice. It's not gonna happen.

On the evening of Jan. 6, 2006, a man was brutally attacked and robbed in a Northwest neighborhood. He died two days later from a massive head injury. Between his savage beating and the moment of his death, that critically injured man was subjected to government incompetence and medical malpractice of the first order. District police and fire and emergency medical services workers as well as Howard University Hospital staff members cavalierly dismissed him as a drunken "John Doe."

His name was David E. Rosenbaum. He was a reporter for the New York Times. But his job was not the reason he became the subject of several columns I wrote over the past two years.

The columns attacked the veil of secrecy that was initially draped over John Doe's death, the lies woven to protect the negligent and the indifferent, the rotten work ethic that runs rampant in our city, and inept government oversight by District leaders.

Today, the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is led by a new chief, Dennis Rubin. Pushed by Rosenbaum's survivors, the city claims to have made changes in the department. Firefighters and EMS workers are to be cross-trained. Teamwork and professionalism are the department's new watchwords.

The deposition cited above, which was not received from David Rosenbaum's adult children or their lawyer, was taken in connection with a lawsuit the Rosenbaum family filed against Howard University Hospital. The hospital recently settled with Rosenbaum's adult children.

That takes the slain journalist out of the news.

But it doesn't eliminate the conditions that threaten the quality of life of all who live in this city: criminals roaming the streets in search of human prey; an apathetic and complacent government workforce; nonproducers ensconced in high places; and elected leaders who fall for snow jobs.

Would that Fire and Emergency Medical Services was the only D.C. agency in need of a makeover. The list is long, with some departments, such as Youth and Rehabilitation Services, operating as fiefdoms.

At the heart of the problem is a government that has outgrown -- and outfoxed -- the leaders elected to oversee it, namely the 13-member D.C. Council.

This isn't a knock against the ability of council members, although some are more able than others.

Truth is, the council is confronted with a nearly $10 billion government enterprise run by 32,000 career workers who constitute a $2 billion payroll. Without a powerful investigative arm of its own, the council is like a pussycat pitted against a python.

It's a sad day when the council must turn to outsiders to investigate a scandal in the D.C. tax office.

To meet its responsibilities under the Home Rule Act and to improve the accountability of city government, the council should have at its disposal the equivalent of Congress's independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The D.C. auditor's office is too small and limited in scope. The D.C. inspector general is administratively within the mayor's office, operates with a budget beyond the council's reach and basically sets its own agenda.

The council needs its own watchdog agency staffed with accountants, lawyers, policy analysts and program specialists to support aggressive legislative oversight.

Otherwise, prepare for more hand-wringing over government foul-ups as city bureaucrats continue doing whatever they please.

kingc@washpost.com

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