Former hospital staffer charged with selling celebrities’ medical information

LOS ANGELES — A former administrative specialist at UCLA Medical Center has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly selling information to the media from medical records of celebrity patients at UCLA Medical Center, according to a document unsealed Tuesday.

Lawanda Jackson, 49, was indicted April 9 on a charge of obtaining individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage. Actress Farrah Fawcett and her lawyers allege that Jackson leaked information about her battle with cancer to the National Enquirer and other tabloids.

The indictment refers to an unidentified national media outlet, but a source familiar with the matter confirmed that it is the National Enquirer.

According to the indictment, Jackson received at least $4,600 from the publication through checks made out to her husband. The agreement lasted from about 2006 until at least May 21, 2007, according to the indictment.

Jackson faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted of the charge.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said that the investigation is continuing and that additional defendants might be charged, including the media outlet involved.

Fawcett talked to Jackson by phone Friday to encourage her to come forward and provide information about her contacts with the tabloids, according to Craig Nevius, producer of Fawcett’s upcoming documentary, “A Wing and a Prayer,” which chronicles the actress’ fight against cancer and her efforts to protect her privacy.

Fawcett “reached out to her and said, `You’re in a lot of trouble and you should come forward now while you can and do the right thing,’ “ Nevius said. “Lawanda … said she would speak to her at some point in the future but had been advised to keep her mouth shut for now.”

Jackson was not arrested and is expected to appear at an arraignment, scheduled for June 9, in federal court in downtown Los Angeles, Mrozek said.

The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that Jackson allegedly had pried into the private medical records of California first lady Maria Shriver, Fawcett and 60 others. In an interview April 8, Jackson denied that she had leaked the information or otherwise profited from it.

“Clearly I made a mistake; let’s put it like that,” Jackson said when asked in a telephone interview why she improperly looked at the records of so many patients. “I didn’t leak anything or anything like that. It wasn’t for money or anything. It was just looking.”

She dismissed questions about whether she had a financial motive to sell information. According to court records, Jackson and her husband, Victor, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, listing assets of less than $23,000 and liabilities of $37,300. But she said, “That was a long, long, long time ago.” Jackson would not say whether she had spoken to the Enquirer. “I’m not going to answer that,” she said. “I’m scared to answer that.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Victor Jackson said his wife was not available. “I don’t have a comment on it right now,” he said. “I don’t even know nothing about it.”

Earlier this month, Enquirer senior reporter Alan Smith defended his coverage of Fawcett’s cancer. “This is a newsworthy story,” he said. “We publish what we believe is accurate.”

Cameron Stracher, senior media counsel for Enquirer parent American Media Inc., said Tuesday that he could not comment.

Prosecutions for breeching patient privacy are rare. The government has received about 34,000 complaints of privacy violations since it officially began enforcing the law five years ago, but only a handful of defendants have been criminally prosecuted.

Reece Hirsch, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath &Rosenthal in San Francisco, said the charges against Jackson are the most serious allowed under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Among the charges the Enquirer could face are conspiracy and aiding and abetting.

“There is a line there between the appropriate investigative role of the media versus basically inducing the hospital employee or an employee of another health-care provider to violate medical privacy law,” Hirsch said.

UCLA launched an investigation after Fawcett told her doctor, Eric Esrailian, that she believed her records had been leaked to the Enquirer for a story it ran in May headlined “Farrah’s Cancer is Back!” The hospital discovered that Jackson had looked at Fawcett’s records repeatedly.

The hospital did not refer its findings to either criminal authorities or state regulators, saying it found no evidence that the worker either had disclosed or sold the information she acquired. Later, however, officials acknowledged that their investigation was limited to e-mails and phone calls made from work.

Jackson had worked at UCLA since she was 16 and resigned last summer after the hospital informed her that it intended to fire her.

“No one who goes to a hospital for care should have to worry about the security of his or her private health information,” said Kim Belshe, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. “It’s critical that hospitals take aggressive steps to protect medical records.”

Hospital officials say they are taking the matter seriously. “Hospitals try to stop this every way they can, but if you get an employee like this, sometimes there’s nothing you can do,” said Lois Richardson, vice president and legal counsel of the California Hospital Association. “The threat of jail time may be just the thing to stop this type of employee.”

UCLA has apologized to those whose records were improperly reviewed. As of earlier this month, 14 UCLA workers had resigned, retired or were fired — and nine physicians were suspended — for peeking at the records of pop star Britney Spears during a hospitalization earlier this year.

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