11/09/06 — Fingers point in hearing on EMS dispute

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Fingers point in hearing on EMS dispute

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 9, 2006 1:45 PM

Four charges and three guilty verdicts later, there still was no resolution Wednesday to the Duplin County case involving former county emergency medical services director Curtis Brock and former Johnston Ambulance Service and county employee Barbara Coman.

The first trial began and ended quickly in Duplin County District Court as Duplin Mike Maultsby moved to dismiss the charge of illegally accessing computers and Barbara Coman pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of computer trespassing.

"She made a mistake at the direction of her supervisor, and she's doing what she can to correct it," her attorney, Joe Zeszotarski of Raleigh, said.

Because minimal damages resulted from the defendants accessing Johnston Ambulance Service's computers, illegally accessing computers was listed as a Class 1 misdemeanor and computer trespassing as a Class 3.

Prosecutors also asked Judge Rodney R. Goodman to delay Ms. Coman's sentencing until after she testified against Brock, which she did Wednesday morning. But because Zeszotarski could not stay past the lunch recess, her sentencing was continued.

The day played out slightly differently for Brock as he was found guilty of both charges -- illegally accessing computers and computer trespassing. The judge sentenced him to 30 days in the Duplin County jail, but suspended the sentence for one year. He also fined Brock $200 and ordered him to pay court costs.

"We're satisfied with the judge's decision," Maultsby said. "We felt like the evidence presented justified the verdict."

However, as soon as the decision was handed down, Brock and his attorney, Bob Rice of Wayne County, filed an appeal. The case will be heard in front of a jury in Superior Court at a later date. Ms. Coman will be sentenced once his case is resolved.

"When I said (in the closing argument) that this was one of the weakest cases I've ever seen, I wasn't playing with words," Rice said. "We are certainly going to exercise his constitutional right to have this decided by a jury of his peers."

But Maultsby said he still believes the state has a strong case.

"We feel like we're ready for a trial by jury," he said.

Maultsby began making the state's case by focusing on three meetings secretly recorded by former Coastline Care owner and operator Dr. Thomas Hunter.

Two of the meetings recorded were between Hunter and Brock. The third was between Hunter, Brock and county Commissioner Larry Howard.

Coastline is an ambulance service operating in Duplin County. They provide inter-facility and other types of non-emergency transports. Johnston Ambulance Service also provides non-emergency transports in the county. Emergency 911 calls are handled by the county's emergency medical services program.

The meetings concerned the possibility of the county moving into the non-emergency transport field.

"We sat down and talked about several things," Hunter said of the first meeting on Jan. 24. "One was if we were to support the county (as it moved into the non-emergency field), there were a variety of different things that would be done to ensure our business and theirs would grow differently."

He and later witnesses explained that the county was looking to begin non-emergency transports in order to help pay for its emergency services. By January, the cost of those services had increased dramatically as the county completed a two-year transition from basic EMT level service to paramedic level service.

The focus of the meetings, Hunter testified, was to push Johnston Ambulance Service out of Duplin County.

"We talked about the possibility of JAS being removed from the county, as well as the idea that we would work together -- that we would charge the same prices and not compete against each other," Hunter said of the second meeting on Feb. 3.

After the third meeting on Feb. 15, though, Hunter rejected the deal.

He later enlisted the help of county resident Jimmy Dixon to transcribe the tapes and present them to local officials.

Brock was placed on administrative leave in late April and resigned in May.

After he was placed on leave, county emergency services director Craig Forlines, county IT director Tom Reaves and assistant emergency medical services director and training officer Jeremy Hill discovered a file on Brock's county computer that did not belong there.

It turned out to be a picture of Johnston's private computer database, which contained information such as call dates, types, distances and patients.

That discovery led to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation charging Brock with illegally accessing computers and computer trespassing.

Ms. Coman, who was then working part-time for the county's emergency medical services, also was charged with illegally accessing computers and computer trespassing. She was fired in May.

A former Johnston employee and manager of the company's Duplin office, Ms. Coman was the one who actually accessed the database via the Internet, using Brock's computer.

Working part-time for the county as a basic EMT, after years of volunteering, Ms. Coman had recently quit her job at Johnston and was hoping to catch on full-time. But, she testified, because of her experience with non-emergency transports, Brock asked for her help as the county began studying the feasibility of entering that field.

"He said any information I could bring to the table would be helpful and would speed up the process," Ms. Coman said.

She also said that he told her that if everything worked out and the county added the non-emergency transport services, she would be hired as supervisor at a $55,000 salary package -- double what she was making.

Helping the county, she continued, was why she used her old username and password to log onto Johnston's online database.

She had retained her access after leaving the company based on an assumed agreement that she would be training her replacement. That agreement never materialized.

"(I did it) because I wanted to make sure that what I was saying was right," Coman said. "I wanted to know for myself what I was saying was correct."

On Feb. 15, she was logged into Johnston's database in Brock's office when he came into the room.

Standing behind her, she testified, he saw that she was looking at a list of Johnston's call information and, after learning that a whole year's list would use too much paper, asked her to print out the last quarter of 2005.

Then, she continued, they went through the information so he could use it to help then county manager Fred Eldridge make a presentation to the county commissioners about implementing a non-emergency transport service at their March meeting in Faison.

And that, Maultsby said, is why Brock is guilty, even though he didn't access the site himself.

"Johnston Ambulance Service has a valid contract to do business here in Duplin County. The defendant was trying to take that from them. He made it clear to Barbara Coman that he needed this information about Johnston Ambulance Service," he said. "Once he tells her to get the additional information and to print it, the crime has been committed. Clearly he knew they shouldn't have been there."

The defense disagreed.

"She (Ms. Coman) testified she accessed that computer database on her own, without Curtis Brock knowing it. She did not tell him it was a Johnston Ambulance Service database. There was nothing on the screen at that time that said it was a secure site. There was nothing to alert Curtis Brock that they were looking at something they shouldn't have been," Rice said. "He had a right to assume what they were doing was proper because he had not been told it was improper.

"The bottom line is Curtis Brock never knew Ms. Coman had access to Johnston Ambulance Service's database."

A lawsuit filed by Johnston against the county and Brock and Coman, is currently pending as the attorneys from Johnston and the county try to work out a settlement.