- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

St. Elizabeths Hospital officials have deleted internal e-mails that could be relevant in a federal lawsuit against the mental health facility, according to a D.C. watchdog group.

University Legal Services Inc. recently sought a court order to bar city officials from deleting e-mails concerning hospital treatment, safety, staffing and budget.

According to the group, top hospital officials have testified in depositions that they were never told to keep the records, though city attorneys have said they gave instructions to retain the e-mails.

University Legal Services, a federally chartered watchdog group that oversees St. Elizabeths, filed a lawsuit against the District in 2004 saying that declining conditions led to the deaths of several patients.

In legal documents, attorneys for the group have expressed concern about whether the District is preserving e-mail and other records tied to the group’s claims.

In addition, the group has sought a court order to confirm that the District has turned over all e-mails to or from more than 40 city employees, including outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams and top Department of Mental Health officials.

“We’ve been told to do that, and that’s a requirement,” said Stephen T. Baron, director of the department. “Our attorneys have come back and made it very clear to us to do that.”

Mr. Baron said city officials are not opposing the request to preserve e-mails and other records relevant to the lawsuit.

“It just had to be a gap in communication, if there was a problem,” Mr. Baron said. “We’re not fighting that at all.”

In court filings, attorneys for the District have disputed many of the concerns outlined in the complaint by University Legal Services.

Mr. Baron said the hospital’s outlook has improved with the recent groundbreaking for a new St. Elizabeths, located at 2700 Martin Luther King Ave. SE.

The federal government transferred hospital operations to the city in 1987.

Founded in 1855, St. Elizabeths was the federal government’s hospital for the mentally ill.

But vacated buildings fell into disrepair as patient levels dropped from 7,000 in the 1940s to fewer than 500 today.

The new hospital will have room for 292 patients. Mr. Baron said the department plans to reduce the population of the hospital by moving some patients into community settings.

Construction is expected to last more than two years.

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