Whistleblower Blues

Outspoken Western Med doctor arrested in suspcious road-rage incident

Whistleblower Michael Fitzgibbons had just won the most important battle of his life. But instead of going to Disneyland, he spent several hours handcuffed in the parking lot of a Santa Ana hospital while police searched his car. They discovered a pair of black gloves and a handgun, evidence in an improbable case of road rage.

Santa Ana police won't say who tipped them off, but say the arrest followed a 911 call at about 2 p.m. on June 28. The caller said someone wearing black gloves and driving a brown Toyota Camry had waved a gun in the air during a traffic altercation near the intersection of 17th Street and Cabrillo Park Drive. Armed only with a vehicle description and license plate number, police quicky traced the car to Western Medical Center's parking lot. "Further investigation identified the owner of the vehicle as Mr. Fitzgibbons," said Sergeant Lorenzo Carrillo.

After receiving his permission to search the Camry, police arrested Fitzgibbons, confiscated his car, brought him to the station, strip-searched him, took his mug shot, and booked him for possession of a loaded firearm, carrying a concealed weapon and brandishing a weapon. They released him on his own recognizance, leaving Fitzgibbons wondering what the hell had just happened.

Fitzgibbons—who goes by "Dr. Fitzgibbons"; he's head of Western Medical Center's infectious diseases—acknowledges he was driving his brown Toyota Camry from his office, which is located just a three-minute drive from the hospital, at the time of the 911 call. And the intersection identified by the caller is less than a block away from Fitzgibbons' office. But Fitzgibbons denies he's ever owned a gun. He says that both the gloves and weapon must have been planted in his car by someone, possibly in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of Western Medical Center's owners.

"I am completely and totally innocent," Fitzgibbons told the Weekly in an interview the next day. "I've been framed."

It's worth noting that Fitzgibbons has been a major nuisance to the company that owns Western Medical Center, Integrated Healthcare Holdings Inc. (IHHI), and has also alienated some of the hospital's doctors. When the Costa Mesa holding company proposed purchasing the hospital from Tenet Healthcare Corp. in the fall of 2004, Fitzgibbons told anyone who would listen that IHHI's principal investor, Dr. Kali P. Chaudhuri, had a record of buying financially troubled hospitals only to close them and sell the real estate at a profit.

Following his testimony at public hearings held by state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), Chaudhuri was forced out of IHHI. Then, in May 2005, shortly after IHHI defaulted on a $50 million loan, Fitzgibbons, then the hospital's chief of staff, sent other doctors an e-mail saying the company's financial situation looked "ominous." A month later, IHHI responded by suing him for slander and interfering in the company's business. Attorney's fees alone could have landed him in the poorhouse.

Three weeks ago, on June 14, a judge concluded that Fitzgibbons had not only been truthful in his statements about the hospital's finances, but was exercising his free speech rights in an effort to ensure quality patient care at Santa Ana's only trauma ward—and that IHHI's lawsuit was therefore a SLAPP suit, or a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

IHHI told TheOrange County Registerthat it was unlikely to appeal the verdict.

"It's water under the dam now," said IHHI president Larry Anderson. "I'm hoping that the resolution of the case will be a springboard from which we can improve relationships with Dr. Fitzgibbons and move forward together."

So you have a doctor who ought to be celebrating, a company eager to get back to business—and the discovery of a gun in the car of a soft-spoken physician known to stand up for his beliefs, but not to wave guns in public.

"I've known Mike for 10 years," said Dr. Peter Wawro, a Western Medical Center trauma surgeon. "This is so out of character for Mike that it defies belief. He does not own a gun, and how the police were able to find his car in the parking lot and track him to the doctors' dining room, I don't know. But what confuses me the most is who would go through the trouble to arrange all this?"

Dr. Thomas Badin, a primary care physician at Western Medical Center, says he was on the telephone with Fitzgibbons at 2:05 p.m., almost exactly the time the 911 call took place. Fitzgibbons says he called Badin on his cell phone to see if he wanted to have lunch at the hospital. Badin, who was driving to a dentist's appointment, declined. The pair then discussed plans for a celebration of Fitzgibbon's recent courtroom victory. (Fitzgibbons suggested Turnip Rose while Tom voted for Mimi's Cafe.)

Badin says he returned to Western Medical Center after his dentist appointment to find that Fitzgibbons had been arrested for waving a gun, presumably during their otherwise mundane chat. One of the officers at the scene told him that he'd examined the videotapes from the cameras above the parking lot to see if anybody had planted gloves and a gun in Fitzgibbons' car that day.

"The police officer said he viewed the camera shots, and nobody invaded or entered the car," Badin said.

Wawro is betting police will quickly clear Fitzgibbons, but doubts the cops will ever figure out what really happened. "I suspect this will eventually go down as an inexplicable circumstance that nobody can explain in any satisfactory manner," he said. "People will scratch their heads and wonder what sort of person Fitzgibbons is, just after he emerges as the victor in this long-standing court battle. This is unfair, and the only motive I can think of is for someone to make him appear like some sort of marginal character. It's one more link in a long chain of peculiar circumstances."


nschou@ocweekly.com

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