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Gallup Indian Medical Center director under fire

GALLUP, N.M. - In a class-action suit, 60 plaintiffs seek to have Gallup Indian Medical Center Medical Director Gary Escudero removed from his position.

The suit began with what some employees saw as unfair labor practices and a violation of religious freedom and racial discrimination laws.

The issue became heated when Behavioral Services Director Dr. Joe Stone was demoted for ''poor productivity,'' according to Richard Laughter, a spokesman for the plaintiffs.

''There were threats to dismiss him for what many of us thought were vague reasons,'' Laughter said. Eventually, Stone - who had no verbal or written warnings in his file - was demoted, he said.

The GIMC has since rescinded the move and instead has placed Stone on two weeks of unpaid suspension, which began March 24, Laughter said.

''They still went from zero to suspension,'' he said.

But Stone, when he resumes his old position, will still report to Escudero, Laughter said, setting him up to be a target.

''Generally, we don't comment on pending lawsuits,'' said Jenny Notah, public information officer for the Navajo Area IHS.

Escudero did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Employees with the Department of Behavioral Health filed a unanimous formal complaint against Escudero; and in letters to the hospital's acting CEO, Bennie Yazzie, and CEO Floyd Thompson, the department listed a number of grievances, including allegations of racial discrimination and cultural insensitivity toward the American Indian staff.

Many area IHS offices have begun to utilize traditional practices along with Western medicine, but the staff complained that GIMC has not moved forward in fully implementing these programs.

Now there is ''continuing hostility'' at the hospital and several American Indian doctors are considering leaving their positions, Laughter said.

But Laughter knows it's a long shot to get Escudero removed from his position.

''Most of these people have been working together for 20 years,'' Laughter said. ''To remove one would be like trying to rearrange the Mafia.''

John Christian Hopkins can be reached at