NEW BEDFORD - A report by a Boston publication is prompting response from Southcoast Health in relation to alleged incidents that led to the firing of Brian Gomes.

The Boston Business Journal released a report Tuesday which, through public records requests, detailed complaints of employees inappropriately touching the breasts of female patients while they were sedated and making sexually-charged remarks about the naked bodies of patients while they were undergoing operations. The complaint did not specify how many employees were accused of such conduct, and did not specify Councilor-At-Large Brian Gomes, a 29-year employee of St. Luke's Hospital, as one of the aggravators.

A letter by Southcoast Health President and CEO Keith Hovan released Tuesday to employees in response to the Boston Business Journal report said an independent investigation into the allegations of mistreatment of patients found no evidence to support those claims.

The allegations are detailed in a complaint filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Hovan did not release specific findings of the independent investigation, but continued in the letter by saying there were grounds for discipline in several cases. "However, the investigator learned that there were conversations and conduct, by a few of our employees, which were unprofessional and offensive, and violated our commitment to treat every patient and staff member with the utmost care and respect," wrote Hovan. "As a result, a number of employees were disciplined, up to and including the termination of two individuals where there was credible evidence to support the allegations of egregious behavior toward colleagues."

One of the two employees was Gomes, who remains in office as a councillor-at-large on the New Bedford City Council. Gomes, then an operating room technician, and another employee at St. Luke's Hospital were fired in June of 2017 over allegations of sexual harassment.

Gomes has filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Southcoast Health for wrongful termination.

According to the lawsuit, filed by Gomes' attorney, George Leontire, Gomes vocally reprimanded a fellow employee he witnessed using her mobile phone in a hospital hallway in 2015. The suit says Gomes apologized to her two days later, and hugged her as part of the apology. The female employee later filed a sexual harassment complaint against Gomes in relation to that incident, according to the suit, and Gomes was sent home with pay.

An investigation by the hospital revealed a number of complaints of Gomes by employees who claimed to have witnessed him exhibiting "loud," "inappropriate," and "disrespectful" behavior. According to the suit, Gomes signed a Corrective Action Form, which came with a final written warning and a five day suspension, and "continued working at St. Luke's Hospital based on the assurances that all work-related issues had been resolved."

However, in January of 2017, the female employee who originally filed the sexual harassment complaint against Gomes walked off the job and became critical on social media of the hospital's handling of her claims. She filed a complaint of sexual discrimination with MCAD.

Gomes was fired five months later.

The letter to employees by Hovan also revealed that a human resources consulting firm that specializes in sexual harassment prevention training had been hired by Southcoast Health since the completion of the independent investigation, and recommendations have been made by the firm. Hovan did not disclose what those recommendations were.

Hovan says over 400 leaders within Southcoast Health would undergo mandatory CBL-Training on sexual harassment, while all 7,500 employees at Southcoast will partake in a "rigorous training program" that extends beyond current annual training.

Southcoast Health President and CEO Keith Hovan's June 19 Letter to Employees:

June 19, 2018

Dear Colleague: I want to make you aware of a story published online today by the Boston Business Journal concerning January 2017 allegations of inappropriate behavior by a few employees at one of our hospitals.

When Southcoast Health first learned of the allegations, we launched an internal investigation to determine exactly what happened. Subsequently, a complaint was filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination containing additional allegations. I can tell you that my immediate reaction to these allegations was one of obvious concern and disappointment, but also a determined resolve to improve gaps in our culture here at Southcoast.

In response, we promptly retained an experienced independent investigator to review all allegations. The investigator interviewed numerous members of staff and leadership. The investigator uncovered no evidence that any patient was harmed or touched inappropriately. However, the investigator learned that there were conversations and conduct, by a few of our employees, which were unprofessional and offensive, and violated our commitment to treat every patient and staff member with the utmost care and respect. As a result, a number of employees were disciplined, up to and including the termination of two individuals where there was credible evidence to support the allegations of egregious behavior toward colleagues.

Following the completion of the independent investigation, Southcoast Health also retained a consulting firm with expertise in human resources and sexual harassment prevention training. That firm conducted a thorough review of our policies and procedures and made a series of recommendations for improvement. In August and September 2017, more than 400 employees in leadership positions underwent mandatory training, beyond our annual mandatory system-wide CBL training, on sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behaviors. Further, we have engaged that consulting firm to conduct a rigorous training program for all 7,500 Southcoast employees beyond the annual training we already receive; this program commenced in May with training of senior executives and will continue over the next 12 to 15 months for all Southcoast employees.

Beyond training, we are significantly reforming and reorganizing our Human Resources function. With our consultant, we are improving policies and practices. We are already making significant investments in Human Resources positions and professionals, including conducting a national search for a Chief Human Resources Officer, who will be responsible for overseeing this important work that is currently underway.

In addition to the changes within Human Resources, we have established a dedicated team of leaders throughout the organization who are engaged, focused and committed to ensuring that we have a workplace of which we can all be proud.

We know that the overwhelming majority of our employees deliver outstanding care and service to all our patients, and treat fellow staff members with courtesy and respect. We cannot and will not accept anything less. All patients and staff members have the right to feel safe and protected from harassment, and we will take the strongest possible action against any employee found to be in violation of that standard.

While significant change has taken place since these allegations first surfaced, we must continue looking forward, identifying all areas where we can improve and evolve. I ask you to join me in that system-wide effort.

Sincerely,

Keith A. Hovan

President & CEO

Southcoast Health