Attorney General’s office says hospital reimbursement in criminal trial not ‘OK’

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has filed an appeal of a judge’s decision regarding reimbursement of attorney’s fees in a criminal case against an administrator at Whidbey General Hospital.

Chief Nursing Officer Linda Gipson was acquitted during a trial in Island County District Court this summer of assaulting a restrained patient.

It was revealed in a hearing following the trial that the hospital had been paying for Gipson’s criminal defense, to the tune of $250,000. Judge Bill Hawkins, however, ruled that her attorney bills should be reimbursed from a state fund for people charged with assault who are found to have acted in self-defense.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Fairchild filed an appeal of the reimbursement order this week on three issues. The appeal will be heard in superior court.

The Attorney General’s Office is arguing that Judge Bill Hawkins should have recused himself. Hawkins’ wife is a nurse at Whidbey General Hospital who works for Gipson, though Hawkins said in court that Gipson doesn’t directly supervise her. The deputy prosecutor asked that he voluntary recuse himself, but he refused.

In addition, Fairchild is appealing on the basis of the jury instruction regarding reimbursement and Hawkins’ ruling on the self-defense reimbursement.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he asked the Attorney General’s Office to consider taking on the appeal since it involves a state fund and the office has a lot more resources than he has.

“Presumably they wouldn’t take the case unless they saw merit in it,” he said.

Both the jury and Hawkins found that it was a case of self defense. At trial, Gipson argued that she put her hands on the unruly patient’s chin to redirect her attention in an appropriate manner.

The prosecutor’s office argued, however, that the case didn’t meet the very limited circumstances in which someone can be reimbursed and that the $250,000 bill was excessive.

It’s unclear how hospital leaders made the decision to fund Gipson’s criminal defense and if there were any parameters connected to it. Rob Born, a candidate for hospital commissioner, said the decision was never discussed at a public board meeting.

Geri Forbes, the hospital’s new CEO, board president Anne Tarrant and Schwarz didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

Banks said it’s very unusual — nearly unheard of — for a government agency to fund an individual’s criminal defense. State law specifically allows public agencies to defend public employees in civil lawsuits, but criminal cases are different, he said. A gifting of funds from a government entity is prohibited by state law.