Western Medical Center's Owners Sued Their Doctors to Muzzle Them, But One Wouldn't Shut Up

Silent Treatment
The owners of Western Medical Center sued their own doctors to muzzle them. But one doctor wouldn’t shut up,and now the feds are investigating the company’s shady financial deals

For someone who had supposedly just pointed a gun at a passing motorist in a fit of rage, the middle-aged man with the horn-rimmed glasses and the white medical robe seemed remarkably relaxed. On June 28, 2006, the man was sitting alone at a table in the doctors’ dining room of Santa Ana’s Western Medical Center and was wholly absorbed in the plate of food before him. It wasn’t until two uniformed officers of the Santa Ana Police Department were standing in front of him that the suspect looked up.

“Are you Michael Fitzgibbons?” one of the cops asked.

Jonathan Bartlett
Jonathan Bartlett

Fitzgibbons, a veteran infectious-diseases specialist at Orange County’s oldest hospital, nodded his head. “Do you mind if we search you?” the cop asked. “Do you have any weapons on you?”

A look of bemused irritation flashed across Fitzgibbons’ face as he stood up and spread out his arms. “No,” he said. “What’s this all about?”

“We have a report of your car being involved in a road-rage incident,” the officer answered. The cop searched Fitzgibbons without finding any weapons, then asked if he could search his car. “Sure, go ahead,” Fitzgibbons said. He accompanied the cops to the parking structure, led them to his brown Toyota Camry and handed over his keys.

As the cops searched the car, it occurred to Fitzgibbons that he ought to call an attorney. For the past few years, Fitzgibbons had been a vocal critic of the corporation that had recently purchased the hospital. He’d spoken out against the company in a public hearing. He’d been such a nuisance that the company had sued him for slander and interfering with company business. On June 14, an Orange County Superior Court judge had tossed out the company’s lawsuit, ordering the plaintiff to pay Fitzgibbons’ six-figure legal bills.

Just as Fitzgibbons finished dialing his lawyer, one of the police officers pulled something out from under a front seat.

“We’ve got a loaded gun,” he yelled.

The other cop handcuffed Fitzgibbons, whose cell phone continued to ring. “I’m trying to call my lawyer,” Fitzgibbons protested, but the cop snapped the phone shut and placed him in the back seat of his patrol car. His partner continued to search the Camry. A few seconds later, he retrieved a pair of black gloves from beneath the driver’s seat.

By this time, a large crowd of onlookers had gathered. “I knew this was a frame-up,” Fitzgibbons recalls. “I didn’t own a gun or a pair of black gloves, and they weren’t in the car when I parked it. I just knew somebody had set me up.”

Fitzgibbons had already been through hell thanks to his refusal to stop complaining about the plummeting conditions at Western Medical Center. Now, just when it seemed like he’d been vindicated, the cops were arresting him for possessing a loaded weapon, carrying a concealed weapon and brandishing a firearm. He knew he was innocent but also knew that the arrest itself could destroy his career. What he didn’t know was that the real nightmare was just beginning.

The scandal that followed Fitzgibbons’ arrest would ultimately produce not only numerous lawsuits, but also high-profile resignations, allegations of widespread fraud, a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission probe, and even an FBI investigation. Documents that the Weekly has obtained, including sworn testimony by key players, strongly support Fitzgibbons’ belief that he was set up on bogus charges in an attempt to destroy his livelihood and reputation.

What happened to Fitzgibbons—frame jobs, financial ruin and even, Fitzgibbons claims, life-threatening sabotage—is so harrowing that almost none of his colleagues at Western Medical will talk about it on the record. Off the record, they complain about years having gone by without the hospital receiving much-needed medical equipment and other upgrades. Meanwhile, they marvel at how much time and money was spent on punishing Fitzgibbons.

“What happened to Mike was an object lesson for all of us,” says one doctor who still works at the hospital. “A lot of us really support Mike, but we realized that what happened to him isn’t something that would do any of us any good.”

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With his sympathetic smile and almost anachronistic earnestness, Fitzgibbons seems like the kind of friendly neighborhood doctor you’d find in a late 1950s Norman Rockwell advertisement. In fact, it was during that time, as a young child in Berkeley, that he realized he wanted to be a doctor. “My mom was a nurse,” Fitzgibbons, now 59, recalls. “I remember that doctors had very soft hands, and they always seemed so friendly and helpful.”

In high school in the early 1960s, he volunteered as an orderly at Brookside Hospital in nearby San Pablo. In 1968, after a freshman year at Contra Costa College, Fitzgibbons transferred to UC Berkeley, where he majored in bacteriology and immunology. He arrived just in time for some of the biggest anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the United States. “I was a protester,” he says. “I still have a tear-gas canister from that time.”

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