WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?: State Sen. Creigh Deeds might sue the local community services board he partly blames for his son’s death. But how much good could that do?
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — If State Sen. Creigh Deeds follows through and files a lawsuit against the community services board he faults for his son’s death, that board’s already uncertain financial shape could worsen.
In November, Deeds’ son, Austin C. “Gus” Deeds shocked the state and country when he attacked his father and then killed himself. Ever since, Deeds has used his platform as a well-respected state senator to launch a very public and personal legislative campaign to reform the local services he says failed his son.
The Deeds story took a twist last week when the legislator, who helped boost funding for mental health services in the 2014 session, filed a notice of his intent to sue the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board for “negligence and gross negligence” in failing to admit his son to the hospital.
Deeds hasn’t officially filed a lawsuit — he has “just put them on notice that is required within six months of the event,” he told the Roanoke Times in an email.
But a lawsuit undoubtedly would come at a bad time for the RACSB, according to a Watchdog.org review of the board’s most recent financial statements.
The RACSB, which takes in slightly less than $5 million in annual revenue, has run an operating loss of $3.4 million in both fiscal years 2012 and 2013. That’s partly because the board, which hired another chief financial officer two years ago, and hired a new CFO in October when that person’s predecessor left, has made some major acquisitions.
The board moved into a new building last year. Before 2012, the RACSB didn’t include that kind of “non-cash depreciation” in its operating budget, said Dennis Cropper, executive director for the RACSB.
“Those are the only two years we’ve had any kind of a negative impact on the budget,” Cropper told Watchdog.org. “… We have started to do that just to show a more realistic picture at the end of each fiscal year,” Cropper said.
Bath County, Buena Vista, Lexington and Rockbridge County also received notices from Deeds’ lawyer, John Fishwick, but aren’t the focal point of the letter, as was RACSB.
“I think it’s probably way too early to say what would happen with any kind of lawsuit, even if the intent was followed through,” Cropper said. “I have no idea what they would be asking for even if it’s monetary. Obviously, when you spend money, you are spending money that could have been used for something else.”
Cropper said insurance could cover lawsuit-related costs, but the board doesn’t have an in-house attorney.
“We would hire out,” Cropper said of legal counsel.
The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which is over all of the state’s local community services boards, didn’t immediately respond to Watchdog.org’s request for comment.
Monica Morose, a legal spokeswoman for Deeds, said they haven’t talked about whether a lawsuit could affect the board’s funding.
“I don’t think at this point there’s been any consideration of that,” Morose told Watchdog.org.
“I think that Senator Deeds is looking for a thoughtful review of this process and what happened, and I think that we hope that these notices of claim will help with that,” Morose said. “The issue of taking things away from an organization, that really isn’t something that we can speak to at this point.”
Deeds didn’t respond to Watchdog.org’s request to comment.
“I just want to make sure that folks know that our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Senator Deeds and his family,” Cropper said. “We, meaning Rockbridge Area Community Services, are committed to continuing this whole process of implementing the protocols and the legislative enhancements that Senator Deeds has been very instrumental in pushing through the General Assembly.”
Morose would only speak in general terms as to what Deeds might hope to accomplish with a lawsuit.
“That is not something that we have really gone into detail on,” she said. “Obviously, I think he’s been pretty clear and I think that he feels like this provision of mental health services is an issue that people need to shed some light on.”
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @kathrynw5.