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It was a victory for the Prison Law Office last year when a San Francisco federal judge appointed a receiver to take over California’s prisoner health care. Inmates were dying because of inadequate care, said Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, and in the five years since the PLO’s suit was filed, the state had failed miserably to improve things. So Donald Specter, the PLO’s head lawyer, supported the idea of a receiver, and supported Henderson’s choice of Robert Sillen (today’s NYT profile, sub. req.), a former Santa Clara County health executive, to take on the role. Then Specter and Sillen met. “Pretty soon after he started, he came over to the office and we said, ‘How can we help?’” Specter said in a Monday interview. “And he said, ‘You can help by getting out of the way.’” That’s not exactly how Sillen remembers it. On the phone Monday afternoon, he said the tension began “pretty soon after the start of the receivership, after the first couple of months, when at the meetings they advised me that I worked for them, and I advised them that I do not.” On Friday, that tension — which, in Sillen’s words, had been “ sub rosa” for more than a year — sluiced into Henderson’s courtroom in a hearing in which the normal lines of federal building decorum were crossed early and often. It was a show, as Henderson put it, of “a stunning lack of trust and respect by persons, who by any measure, any measure whatsoever, should be arch allies.” Instead, he added, they’ve become “arch enemies.” THEN THE FUR STARTS TO FLY The nominal subject matter of the hearing was Specter’s call for the receiver to come up with a timetable for specific reforms of the medical system and metrics by which to measure whether the improvements in care were succeeding. “One year and a couple of months after the receivership began, we have a plan that doesn’t have one timetable on it, doesn’t have one metric on it, doesn’t have the when, the what and the who that one generally associates with a plan of action,” Specter said. The PLO’s concern, he added, is that a plan that is “all vague and without detail” wouldn’t force the changes that Henderson has said the health care system needs. But Sillen’s lawyer, Martin Dodd of Futterman & Dupree in San Francisco, said the notion that a timetable could be set for steps in the overhaul is naive given the disarray of the health care infrastructure. “It doesn’t make sense to say well, by November of 2008, we’re going to do X when now, in this state of disarray, no one is even sure we’ll get to talk about X,” Dodd said. He said that the case differs from most lawsuits, where a judge can simply compel things to happen by a certain date, due to the deeply rooted dysfunction within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Indeed, he continued, this was something Specter should understand. “It’s difficult to understand the vehemence with which the plaintiff has attacked the receiver,” Dodd said. Specter’s vehemence did seem surprising on Monday morning until Sillen topped him. After the issues had been argued, and the hearing was all but over, Sillen unloaded. “I think Mr. Specter is being quite disingenuous,” he said, describing the PLO as an obstacle in his attempt “to create a health care system in this god-awful paramilitary CDCR.” Sillen told Henderson that the PLO —paid to monitor health care in the prisons — is trying to maintain control over the case, which is no longer its role once a receiver has been appointed. “The Prison Law Office, in my opinion, wants to maintain the role they created for themselves in a different day and age,” Sillen said. He went on to speculate that the PLO, a prisoner advocacy group, may want to sabotage the reforms because Henderson and two other federal judges have said they’ll cap the number of prisoners statewide if health care can’t be improved. “God forbid anyone would have the motivation of the receivership failing to rid the overcrowding,” Sillen said. The receiver was just as strident in a phone interview after the hearing. He said he views the PLO as being in self-preservation mode, trying to maintain a prominent role and a funding stream from the monitoring, which Sillen wants to end. “There’s a lot at stake for the PLO in terms of their role, in terms of their relevancy, in terms of their revenue stream,” he said. “They just want to be reinstated to their role of 800-pound gorilla, and they can’t have that.” Reached by phone after the hearing, Specter said he wasn’t surprised by Sillen’s vehemence. “That was in public. You can imagine what he said in private,” he said. “It’s not that much different, it’s just louder.” NO TABLING THE TIMETABLES Specter dismissed the notion that he was doing it for the money, and said that he represents the plaintiffs in the case — Plata v. Schwarzenegger, 01-cv-01351— and is still litigating it. “People have rights in lawsuits. We’re here to exercise those rights,” he said. “You don’t kick the plaintiff out of a lawsuit.” Henderson seemed disinclined to let Sillen dispose of the timetables altogether. “What’s not clear to me at this point in time is why the plan doesn’t have timetables,” he said. He focused, though, on his concern over the conflicting parties, saying he felt like “a coach who must spend his time settling a dispute between his lineman and his backfield, rather than prepare for the game.” But rather than assign blame, he tried to grease the skids for a quick resolution by piling it on himself. “I’ve not furnished the leadership that I should have, and that I will start to do,” he said before announcing that his “longtime personal friend” J. Starr Babcock, a State Bar official, would mediate the dispute. “I will be seeking his advice as to who is reasonable,” he said. Babcock declined to comment after the hearing. But Sillen and Specter both said they’re hoping that he can help move them toward a resolution. So did Henderson, who said he hopes to get the case to a point were he can say, “OK, we had such an impact in this case that I can say, ‘I’m going fishing, someone else can lead you to the end of this road.’”

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