Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg is threatening to veto a County Council decision to suspend funding for the Prometa drug-treatment program.
He says some on the council are playing politics with Prometa and kept the public in the dark leading up to the Oct. 23 decision to stop funding for the treatment, a combination of generic drugs used to treat clients in the county’s drug court.
Ladenburg didn’t name names, and several council members disputed his accusations. They said questions about Prometa’s effectiveness and the company that licenses it required quick action.
But state assistant attorney general Tim Ford said this week that while the council apparently did nothing illegal, it didn’t provide “meaningful notice” to the public of its intent to halt 2007 Prometa funding.
The council will discuss Prometa at a hearing Wednesday on the county’s 2008 budget. Council Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, said he expects no action on Prometa funding at the hearing.
Under county law, Ladenburg has until Nov. 15 to veto the 2007 funding suspension. He said he wants to give the council another chance to support Prometa funding.
“I’d rather avoid a veto if I can,” Ladenburg said.
It’s unclear whether the council could overturn a Ladenburg veto. The Oct. 23 vote to suspend Prometa funding was 4-3. It would take five votes to overturn a veto.
If Ladenburg prevails, about $150,000 in 2007 funding for Prometa would be restored. But Lee said Ladenburg’s request for $400,000 for Prometa in 2008 remains in jeopardy.
The council suspended funding for Prometa just a few hours after the release of a report by county auditors that found little evidence the treatment program is effective.
Ladenburg criticized the council for rushing the Prometa funding measure onto the council’s agenda. It came in the form of an amendment to a supplemental budget ordinance dealing with several nonrelated issues.
Ladenburg said the council could have postponed the measure a week or two to give proper notice to the public, the executive’s office and the nonprofit group that administers Prometa for the county.
The county executive isn’t the only critic of the council’s quick decision. Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, said the council didn’t follow its procedures.
Usually issues go first to a committee and then to the full council, Farrell said. In this case, the full council voted to suspend Prometa funding a day before its Performance Audit Committee took up the Prometa report.
“We have a process. We didn’t follow the process,” said Farrell, who voted against suspending Prometa funding.
Ford, the assistant attorney general, said it doesn’t appear the council did anything illegal. He said state law gives elected officials discretion to take up any issue at regular meetings.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
“That’s not meaningful notice,” Ford said of the way the council handled the Prometa funding measure.
Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, said he received a briefing on the auditors’ report the day before the Oct. 23 meeting.
He said he notified fellow council members of his intent to introduce the funding measure the day before the council meeting. He gave The News Tribune a copy of an Oct. 22 e-mail addressed to council members that states his intention to offer a Prometa amendment.
Bunney said he felt some urgency to act based on the county auditors’ report and previous media reports about Hythiam Inc., the company that licenses the Prometa treatment.
MSNBC.com earlier this year reported on the “checkered Wall Street career” of Hythiam CEO Terren Peizer.
The network reported that Peizer previously touted an anti-AIDS drug that has yet to make it to market. It also cited concerns about Hythiam’s efforts to market Prometa before studies have determined its effectiveness.
“The report by the (Pierce County) auditors validated my concerns,” Bunney said. “I wanted to make sure taxpayers were protected.”
Council chairman Lee acknowledged that the council acted on the Prometa funding on short notice. But he said that’s not unusual for a supplemental budget ordinance.
The council approved several other last-minute amendments Oct. 23, though they were minor.
“I think (Ladenburg) feels there’s something subversive going on up here,” Lee said. “I just don’t see it.”
Ladenburg said he believes one or more council members ordered a negative Prometa report to justify cutting the funding.
Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, chairman of the council’s Performance Audit Committee, called Ladenburg’s accusation “laughable.”
“I have never, ever tried to influence any study” by the auditors, Muri said.
Matt Temmel, the county’s performance audit coordinator, also disputed Ladenburg.
“Before and during the study, no one directed this office to write a negative report,” Temmel said. “In making such allegations, I hope the critics are not trying to curtail fair investigation of the Prometa issues or intimidate the Performance Audit Office.”
Ladenburg has come under scrutiny after admitting he bought about $2,700 worth of stock in Hythiam last year. He says he sold the stock at a loss last month, and said his shares haven’t influenced his advocacy for county and state Prometa funding.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341