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Ethical Question Raised in Spokane/AMR Relationship

The son of Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession has been hired by American Medical Response, the ambulance company that is a defendant in a pending class-action lawsuit for allegedly overbilling more than 20,000 city residents in the last decade.

Patrick Hession is working as a paramedic in Spokane, where AMR has an exclusive contract to provide ambulance service within the city, AMR regional manager Art McKiernan confirmed Tuesday.

City Councilwoman Mary Verner, challenging Hession in November’s election, and unsuccessful primary mayoral candidate Al French, both said Tuesday the issue should be examined by the city’s Ethics Commission.

“It doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t smell good,” French said when asked about the propriety of the mayor’s son going to work for one of the city’s largest private contractors.

The mayor did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Marlene Feist, his public affairs aide, called The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday to ask the nature of the questions. Later, Hession’s campaign chairman, Steve McNutt, called the newspaper and said the mayor didn’t know about his son’s new job until after he was hired by AMR. McNutt said Hession didn’t want to answer questions because “it is a campaign issue, not a city administration issue.”

“We were out jogging about a month ago and Dennis told me Pat got a position with AMR,” McNutt said. “He shook his head worrying about the political consequences.”

“I think this is a political low-blow,” McNutt said.

At AMR, McKiernan would not say who within the company – the nation’s largest ambulance service provider – made the hiring decision.

“I wasn’t involved in hiring him,” said McKiernan, who moved to Spokane in January from Montana where he also worked with AMR.

Patrick Hession was hired “fairly recently,” but McKiernan couldn’t provide a hire date.

“To be honest with you, I found out after we’d actually hired him that he was the mayor’s son,” the AMR executive said. “I don’t believe there was knowledge beforehand that there was this relationship.”

Asked if there was an appearance of conflict for the company to hire the mayor’s son, McKiernan said, “I wouldn’t think so.”

“He’s not in a management position,” McKiernan said. “He’s in the field, working as a paramedic, you know, taking people to the hospital and taking care of the sick.

“I think it would have been unfair to not hire a qualified person just because of the position and the job his father holds,” the AMR executive said.

The mayor’s son, who is 25, had been pursuing a master’s degree in clinical anatomy at Creighton University in Nebraska. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

The AMR contract with the city of Spokane will expire in October 2008. By that time, it’s possible that outlying fire districts, including Spokane Valley, may join the city as part of a countywide contract with a single ambulance provider.

Under the city’s ethics policy, Hession would have to recuse himself from any involvement with the new contract if it goes to AMR.

Hession, appointed mayor in December 2005, faces Verner in November’s election. She and French were part of a City Council subcommittee that spent several months investigating claims that AMR had overbilled city residents under its monopoly contract granted by the city.

The inquiry ended when AMR officials admitted overbilling city residents $320,689 between January 2003 and March 2006.

As the city’s chief executive, Hession alone determined the fine AMR had to pay in that case. He could have fined AMR hundreds of thousands of dollars under terms of its contract with the city, but Hession settled on a fine of $80,172 in June 2006.

“This fine is significant enough to express our serious concern about the multiple billing errors that occurred and sufficiently measured to acknowledge the professional manner in which AMR responded to this issue,” the mayor said the day he announced the fine.

Shortly before AMR admitted the overbilling, a Superior Court lawsuit was filed and later certified as a class-action against AMR by city residents who allege they’d been cheated. That case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 5.

AMR’s decision to hire the mayor’s son surprised Verner.

“You caught me off guard with that one,” Verner said when reached for comment. “It’s quite a shocker, quite interesting.”

She said the mayor last year gave the ambulance company “a light rap on the fingers when it was found that AMR was, in fact, overbilling our customers at their most vulnerable moments when they have to call an ambulance.”

Now with Hession’s son working for AMR, Verner said, “I certainly don’t like the sound of it.”

“This sounds like something the ethics commission should investigate,” she said.

George Iranon, vice chairman of the city’s new ethics commission, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the issue.

“Until it comes before the committee, we’re not going to make comments or judgment,” he said Tuesday. “It would be unfair to talk about this or make any comments about a specific situation that hasn’t come before us.”

French said he first “heard rumblings” about the mayor’s son on Aug. 29, the day before he left on a vacation after losing to Hession and Verner in the Aug. 21 primary.

“I haven’t had a chance to get any of the background on this thing to determine whether in fact it is an ethics violation or not, but I certainly think it does raise some questions about the timing and sequence,” French said. “It’s possible everything was done above board, but there are issues about who was involved, who made decisions.”