Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
The Dallas County District Attorney's Office has launched a criminal investigation in a case that raises questions about an office that handles some of the most sensitive information imaginable -- the identities of people with STDs.
NBC 5 Investigates uncovered a stunning criminal investigation underway inside the Dallas County Health Department after state investigators found health department workers fudging numbers to make it look like the county was doing a better job of tracking down people who may have been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases.
Meanwhile, the sexually transmitted disease program is actually lagging behind when it comes to contacting and examining those who may have actually been exposed to syphilis.
When someone tests positive for an STD the county health department is supposed to help locate the person's previous sexual contacts and let them know they may be at risk. Investigators with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission Office of Inspector General (OIG) believe a Dallas County Health Department supervisor directed employees to falsely boost the numbers since the health department was not meeting state goals for contacting people potentially exposed to syphilis.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained documents showing the OIG found two Dallas County Health Department employees "admitted to entering false data" into the state's STD Management Inforamtion System at the direction of Lashonda Worthey, the manager of the county's HIV-STD program.
State investigators discovered workers "entered the names of individuals into non-related case files to increase the agency's performance numbers.
Investigators found the workers took names of people who tested negative and listed them as past sexual contacts in the files of people who tested positive for syphilis. This made it look like they had identified the person's past contacts, but really the names they were inserting in the files had nothing to do with the person who tested positive.
Just two weeks ago the Texas Department of State Health Services sent a letter to Dallas County Health Director Zach Thompson alerting him that his department was being put on probation while ordering that "Lashonda Worthey must be removed from all activities involving state contracts."
Dallas County is now at risk of losing a state contract worth nearly $2 million if it does not take steps to fix the problem. The state also sent the case to the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, which is now conducting a criminal investigation.
Kirk Myers, who directs Abounding Prosperity, one of Dallas' leading sexually transmitted disease programs, said that it's essential that health departments locate people who may have been exposed so that they can receive treatment and not go on to unknowingly infect others.
Myers added that there should be definitive corrective actions taken that includes following-up on cases.
"If the follow-up is not happening, then we are going to see more people continuing to present in our clinic positive for these various diseases we're talking about," Myers said.
Myers, and others involved in testing, said it's not easy for health departments to track down people in STD cases.
"It's a tough job to be out there trying to get the information out of somebody who may not want to give you the information," said Bret Camp, with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a leading provider of STD treatment and testing services.
But if workers with the Dallas County Health Department intentionally fudged the numbers, Myers said there is no excuse.
"Absolutely the public has to trust that they are guarding that information and handling that information in a way that warrants the public's trust," said Myers.
NBC 5 Investigates has left voice and email messages for Worthey and the other employees, one of whom was a contractor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but, as of this writing, we have not heard back. A CDC spokeswoman said the agency is "generally aware" of the investigation but did not have enough information to comment further.
Director Thompson will not answer any questions about the case. He sent NBC 5 Investigates' request for an interview to the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, where Assistant D.A. Melanie Barton declined the interview on Thompson's behalf.
In a letter sent to the Texas Attorney General and NBC 5 Investigates, Barton also confirmed the district attorney's Public Integrity Unit is conducting the criminal investigation. In the letter, Barton argues that the attorney general should allow Dallas County to withhold records requested by NBC 5 Investigates because release of those records, “…would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.”
The only glimpse into why one of Thompson's managers might have falsified records comes in a note Worthey emailed to the state saying, "The program has always felt obligated to meet minimum standards. Through the years it has been instilled that it's all about the numbers." In that note, Worthy offered an apology saying, "This will never happen again."
Investigators do not believe anyone's confidentiality was compromised even though names were placed in the wrong files; the health department never contacted those people regarding STDs.