1. Archive

"Wanted poster' brings bitter end to dentist's career at HRS

For more than 25 years, Dr. Charles Kekich tracked down perpetrators of Medicaid fraud, recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money.

Suddenly, Kekich found himself a wanted man _ at least according to crude posters plastered around the offices of his then-employer, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

"If you see him lurking about, . . . please notify your supervisor," warned the poster, which featured a blown-up picture of Kekich's driver's license photo.

Kekich, who now works for another state agency, says the posters appeared after he expressed anger about the abolition of his $62,000-a-year job. He denies threatening anyone _ as some HRS employees have charged _ and says the posters have damaged his reputation. And he wonders how someone in HRS got his driver's license photo, which is supposed to be confidential and available only to law enforcement personnel.

"Trashing my reputation and putting up posters like this one is sick," Kekich said.

HRS officials initially said they didn't know who made the poster or how anyone got a copy of Kekich's license photo. But they admitted getting it after a reporter discovered a form signed by HRS' former inspector general.

"It was a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing," acknowledged HRS General Counsel Kim Tucker. She said the documents were discovered after the Times requested them last week, the same day that driver's license officials discovered they had a copy of the same record.

The poster controversy marks a bitter end to a distinguished career.

Kekich's job included helping catch dentists who filed fraudulent claims and pursuing disciplinary action against them. His work earned repeated applause and exceedingly good evaluations from superiors.

But in 1990, Kekich's job as a senior dentist was abolished. Faced with unemployment or a return to clinical practice after years in state government, Kekich, 58, accepted a demotion to a job as a medical disability examiner. His annual salary dropped from $62,000 to $19,000.

Two years later, Kekich learned that there were alternative assignments he could have obtained, and he filed a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Commission in an attempt to get back pay and a better job. Because his complaint had not been filed within 14 days of the demotion, the commission dismissed it.

A short time later, in March 1993, the wanted posters appeared.

Kekich says the poster was created and circulated after he told a former supervisor that he was angry and that HRS had ruined his career. The conversation occurred about the same time a fired Tampa office worker shot and killed several former colleagues.

"I said I could understand how people get shot," Kekich recalled. He denies threatening anyone but admits he was bitter and angry.

One HRS employee, though, reported that Kekich had talked about buying a gun and harming several HRS officials and their families. Among those named was Dr. James Mahan, the state health officer.

Tucker, the HRS attorney, said she is uncertain whether the poster was actually put up on a bulletin board but said several copies were made because some secretaries didn't know what Kekich looked like.

A few days after the conversation between Kekich and his ex-supervisor, Tallahassee police officers knocked on Kekich's door and started asking questions. He told them he didn't own a gun, didn't plan to buy one and wasn't threatening anybody. The police interviewed his new supervisor, who described Kekich as a "a good worker" who is "helpful to other employees."

The police found no chargeable crime and took no action but filed a report on the incident. State health officials later used the report to go to court and seek an injunction banning Kekich from coming within 100 feet of them.

Instead, the court approved a "mutual temporary injunction" in which Kekich, Mahan and three other HRS officials agreed "not to commit or threaten acts of violence or bodily injury" against each other.

Tucker said the injunction was aimed primarily at Kekich because of his "death threats." Such threats are not a crime unless they are made in writing, create a well-founded fear that an attack is imminent and are made by someone with the ability and intent to commit the crime. Police noted that the threats were made five days before anyone reported them, an indication that no one at HRS took them seriously.

Kekich heard about the poster from other state employees and says it damaged his reputation. He and his attorney, Vernon Grizzard, have spent the past 13 months trying to find out who put up the posters and how someone at HRS obtained a copy of his driver's license photo.

Officials at HRS have repeatedly insisted they could find no document except the poster. In a letter written last month to Kekich's lawyer, one HRS official said the agency had been unable to determine who approved the creation and distribution of the poster, how the driver's license was obtained or what the poster was based on.

Last week, at the request of the Times, Highway Safety Director Fred Dickinson turned up a document indicating that the photo had been requested by Jay Kassack, inspector general of HRS in 1993.

Kassack signed a statement saying that Kekich was under investigation for making "threatening statements." State law requires the State Division of Motor Vehicles and Highway Safety to release photos only when a law enforcement agency signs an affidavit swearing that the person is the target of an investigation.

Kassack says he vaguely recalls the case and was unaware that the photo should have been obtained only as part of a law enforcement investigation.

HRS finally found its file on Kekich in mid-September. Tucker, the HRS attorney, noted that the agency has been through two inspectors general since the poster incident occurred in 1993. She referred questions to Kassack, saying she could only speculate about the propriety of actions taken by a prior administration.

Kekich's attorney said last week he was shocked to learn that the records have turned up _ after he and Kekich spent 18 months making repeated public records requests to two state agencies, sent letters to the governor and made other efforts to find them.

Meanwhile, Kekich has been pursuing his attempt to return to his old job. Last week, the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee refused to consider his complaint. Grizzard said Kekich must decide whether to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court or file a new suit in federal or state court.

"It upsets me when HRS talks about changing the agency's name, because they're nice people," said Kekich, referring to attempts earlier this year to change the department image by changing its name. "They need to change their actions first."