For months, a unit at the Public Storage on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers went unclaimed. Though warehouse staff sent several letters to the renter of the space, Maria Gamez, no responses or payments were made.
In an effort to clear out the unit so it could be leased by someone else, storage facility manager followed protocol by advertising that the contents would go up for auction.
So this past June 25, a man by the name of Don Brooks, or “Taco Don” as he likes to be called, made a winning bid of $100. He soon discovered that nearly 100 boxes were filled with confidential medical records, including thousands of social security numbers, billing information and patient files.
By law these documents are required to remain confidential. With this in mind, and concerned the trove of sensitive information could be so easily up for grabs, Brooks called the media.
Brad Dotson, a story coordinator for the CBS-affiliated WINK News, assigned the story to news reporter and weekend anchor Matt Dougherty. Originally from Houston, Dougherty joined the WINK News team in 2014 and has since helped the weekend newscasts achieve ratings double that of WINK's competitors with award-winning reporting on complex issues. Coworkers call him "Hollywood" because he looks like a GQ model.
Dougherty soon discovered the documents belonged to a neurologist named Gerardo Gamez (whose relationship to the storage owner, Maria Gamez, is unclear.) He emailed Russ Kilgore, the news director at Wink News. Promos were running and the story would be ready for the 6 P.M. news.
But then, out of nowhere, Kilgore killed the story. And this is where things get murky. Dougherty claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the news director showed favoritism. Gamez was Kilgore's family physician. Weirder still, the anchor says interviews on his computer were erased.
The two debated whether possession of the documents was a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires “medical providers" to protect the privacy of their patients' records. According to the lawsuit, the debate became heated — with the news director demanding the anchor sign an affidavit that he would keep the information he had discovered secret.
Dougherty refused to sign. In an interview, he says he tried to explain he had done nothing illegal but his words "fell on deaf ears." Then in late July 2015, he was demoted and his pay was slashed. Soon after that, on the day before his 33rd birthday, he was fired.
On July 31, the staff at WINK News received an email stating: "Matt Dougherty is no longer an employee of Fort Myers Broadcasting Company/WINK News. Please remember our standard security procedures."
“I was shocked and sick to my stomach when they fired me without a reason. I had two years left on my contract. How could I explain to another potential employer what happened?" Dougherty told New Times. "WINK already started disparaging me to cover up for what they did. I felt like my entire career was over."
Last Thursday, August 13, he filed a lawsuit in Florida Circuit Court accusing the company of committing a breach of contract and for violating Florida’s Whistleblower Act.
"The lawsuit tells [the Fort Myers Broadcasting Company] that they will not get away with firing a hard-working, ethical journalist for their misconduct," declared Susan Chana Lask, Dougherty's attorney. "It alerts the Southwest Florida community that their local station is concealing important public information from them. Their private medical records, social security numbers and other embarrassing information were sold for a mere $100 bucks because the doctor was completely inept with their most private information."
WINK News claims Dougherty was fired for not coming into work on July 28 and 29, however, according to Lask he only stopped coming into the station after his supervisors said he was axed. Lask says she has proof in the form of emails that Dougherty was, in fact, fired on July 27.
WINK News general manager Joe Schwartzel declined comment on the claims, calling them part of a personnel matter.
The office of Dr. Gamez's attorney, Kristen Perkins, said it would provide a statement for this article but that it may be delayed. In a third call, Perkins assistant said she couldn't make any promises a response will be given. If one is supplied, it will be added to this post.
Dougherty said he has recovered the deleted videos from his computer. He says he intends to hand the retrieved material over to the feds if an official investigation is opened. "It was not a secure place for private medical files to be," he says. "It is concerning that a doctor abandoned them and let them go to auction.
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UPDATE: Kristen Perkins has sent a response on behalf of Dr. Gamez:
"Dr. Gerardo Gamez did not abandon any patient records. The records were stored at an off-site location, which is not unusual when a physician closes an office and joins another group practice. There was an incident involving Dr. Gamez’s record storage, which resulted from a problem with payment for the storage bill after the credit card set up for autopay was stolen. There was an oversight in replacing the credit card for payment and Dr. Gamez took immediate action to secure the records once he was made aware of the problem. Dr. Gamez does not believe there was any improper use or dissemination of confidential patient information. He is complying with all legal requirements and is comfortable that there is very limited to risk to the patients involved."
However, Lask says there is no excuse for this "oversight" on behalf of the doctor.
"The minute the doctor lost track of those patient files is the minute he violated HIPAA and thousands of patients' privacy. There is no excuse for this breach," she said. "[The statement regarding Dr. Gamez] appears to be an admission of his misconduct under HIPAA. No doctor should lose sight of such highly confidential information, then blame it on a stolen credit card. Finally, he cannot say if anyone else has seen these documents because he admits he lost track of them for years.”