When a U.S. District Court jury awarded Petaluma physician Van Peña $1.34 million two weeks ago in a civil rights suit against management staff at the Sonoma Developmental Center, the verdict rekindled 13-year-old memories of abuse allegations and cover-up charges that have never been resolved.
The unanimous jury award from a case first filed in 2000 found that Peña had been placed on administrative leave, and was then fired five months later, in retaliation for his efforts to expose examples of abuse to SDC patients, as well as the administration’s efforts to cover up that abuse.
Evidence of that retaliation was denied by the presiding judge in the first trial, which resulted in a verdict against Peña and for SDC. But an appeals court ruled that Peña’s whistle-blowing efforts should have been allowed into evidence, along with testimony from then-SDC police chief Edward Contreras who had firsthand knowledge of the retaliation campaign against Peña.
Contreras shared that knowledge with the Index-Tribune in 2001, and again during Peña’s second jury trial. This week, he reiterated some of his testimony, including the disappearance of more than 100 patient records documenting abuse from a storage room at SDC and two conversations between SDC administrators during which then clinical director Patty Rees allegedly told Executive Director Tim Meeker, “We have to fire this guy (Peña), he’s trouble.”
A week later, said Contreras, Rees called him to her office and asked, “How’s the investigation going, have you found some dirt on this guy?”