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Bill Bronston and Friends: Doug Dornan's Story

Produced by Dr. David Goode

Produced in 2005
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Doug Dornan: I had a different role from Bill's, which is probably important to stress for you in that if Bill was entirely overt in his advocacy and in his positions, I was covert. I… smuggled out information to be used for the class action suit against Willowbrook.

My title was psychiatric social worker number two. But they changed that to community planner, and I was in charge of what was called Project Exodus, which meant movement of people out of Willowbrook in large groups. Not individual placement, but group placement. And I'll just give you one slice of how that worked. Anyone that wanted to get group movement out of Willowbrook had to come through me, meet with me, present what their plans were, and so on.

I kept getting presented three different times by three different groups of professionals all representing the same proprietor, a Rabbi Bernard Bergman, and each time they would bring more professionals. It went from two to four to seven. And they all had these high… highly credentialed backgrounds, but none of them knew anything about developmental disabilities.

They had no sense of that the people at Willowbrook could actually have lives and grow and change. And so I turned them down. In every case, I turned them down. And they have this hundred bed empty nursing home on Staten Island called Island Nursing Home, and they wanted to fill those hundred beds with Willowbrook residents and collect the Medicaid revenue for doing so.

It went over my head to the director of Willowbrook. It went over his head and up to the governor's office, then Governor Rockefeller. Well, it turns out that Rabbi Bernard Bergman was the largest orthodox Jewish fundraiser for Rocky in his gubernatorial campaigns. And the governor's office directly ordered that this Dornan guy at Willowbrook has to step aside. We're going to move those hundred people out and they're going to fill this nursing home.

Well, at that point, a friend of mine named Rick Turpin and I began on our own time researching who Bergman was and where he got all his power. Well, it turned out the Bergman was the head of a syndicate of 62 nursing homes in the New York metropolitan area and had sweetheart relationships for the providing of furniture, from sister companies.

So we put this whole story all together, and we took it first to Andrew Stein, who was the city councilman at the time, and he held a public hearing about it. And that got some attention in Albany. Simultaneously, we took it to the New York Times, and a reporter for the New York Times named John Hess ran the story front page in the Times only from the point of view of Medicaid fraud, not the actual conditions that people were living under, but Medicaid fraud and the abuse of taxpayer dollars.

That resulted in the creation of what's called in legal statute the Moreland Commission investigation of nursing homes. And I was the lead witness in that investigation. It was on... it was the front page of the Times. It was PBS broadcast all day long. It was this whole big deal that frankly scared the hell out of me. I was literally offered, because there were threats on my life because word got out that I was there key witness.

The Willowbrook action, class action suit and the actions of the Moreland Commission investigation fused together, and pointing to the corruption at the top and in pointing to the inhuman conditions under which people were living, and the abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Bill Bronston MD: I want you to listen very carefully. I know this is mesmerizing story, but I want you to hear what are that the universal issues and themes that you experience now in your lives. If you were on the line, what would shut you up? What would move you? What you would do? Because I'm going to tell you when I first got there, there was about 40 bushy tailed, bright eyed, fabulous public health, public educators, school teachers working in the place. And they signed a petition that they gave to Hammond protesting the fact that the work that they were doing with their children in their classes – and these were all children at the time – was being completely undone by the ward workers, who did not support any of the behavior shaping agendas that were being put forth.

And I said to my friend at the time, "Look out." You know, "You think that you're going to give him a petition, you're going to get your asses fired. You cannot do this up front. You cannot go against the workers. You cannot go against the workers and survive this fight." And she, white, shiny thing she was, you know, completely said, you know, "We're all together on this and we have to do this." And I said, "Look out." They were all fired within the next week. The next week. You cannot breach the fundamental relationships between professionals and non-certified professionals in a struggle against, you know, this kind of titular authority. You've got to go…

Gene Eisner: Let me take it a step further because you made a comment earlier about the non-unionized blue collar workers. [Yeah ] In fact, I want to remind you that they were unionized, that they were members of the CSEA. They were state employees.

Bill Bronston MD: State union.

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