Five state public health employees maintained a “yearbook” that included photos of medical marijuana applicants and mocking captions such as “Happy Holidaze” and “Why the long face?,” according to a report released Friday by the state’s executive inspector general’s office.
Medical marijuana program applications are supposed to be kept confidential, but the Illinois Department of Public Health employees used the photos “to make fun and for their personal enjoyment,” the IG’s office said in a 38-page report.
“Those that participated in activities related to the yearbook attempted to minimize or downplay their conduct, as evidenced by their characterizations of the yearbook as ‘benign’ and intended simply to ‘lighten up the mood,’ for ‘jest,’ and to be funny,” the report stated.
An investigation began after the watchdog received an anonymous complaint in late 2021 alleging that the then-chief of the medical cannabis division, Myles Willingham, printed a patient photo and put it in the yearbook. The complaint also alleged that the book was kept in the break area in an IDPH facility.
In an interview with investigators last year, Willingham denied that he contributed to the book and said he didn’t know when it was created. When asked whose idea it was to create it, he replied, “I didn’t ask,” according to the report.
But he also said the yearbook was created because people sent in “ridiculous” photos with their medical cannabis applications that did not meet state’s requirements, the report stated.
While saying the yearbook was made “in jest” and there was no official use for it, Willingham told investigators that he confiscated it from the break area when he “discovered patient photos he felt were inappropriate,” according to the report.
“Not only did Mr. Willingham fail to take any action to curtail this inappropriate behavior for approximately five months, he affirmatively participated in it,” the watchdog wrote. “This conduct from a division head sends a strong message to employees that such offensive behavior is acceptable, and encourages its continuance.”
Aside from Willingham, the IG’s office concluded that four other employees — temporary office coordinator Sabrina Clark, administrative assistant Grace Furlong, office coordinator Miguel Alcocer Torres and office coordinator Marianella Rivera Rodriguez — violated the state employees’ code of conduct.
According to the report, Clark admitted to helping create the book and contributing a photo submitted in a patient application. Alcocer Torres also contributed at least one photo, the report said.
Rivera Rodriguez admitted to contributing photos including an image of a person with the caption “Punta Cannabis,” and the image of a jar and cannabis with the caption “I am what I smoke.”
Furlong said, according to the report, that she printed a photo and gave it to Rivera Rodriguez for the book, but said that photo never made it inside. And while she denied ever telling anyone about the book other than when being asked about it, she claimed that she only responded that “it was a binder of photos of what not to approve.”
Willingham has since resigned from his position and Clark is no longer an employee at IDPH.
Rivera Rodriguez and Alcocer Torres were ultimately given 10-day suspensions and Furlong was given a five-day suspension, according to the report. They also had to undergo training related to handling sensitive information.
In a statement, IDPH spokesman Mike Claffey said the actions laid out in the IG’s report are “clearly unacceptable” and that the medical marijuana program’s staff have received training on the state’s Code of Professional Conduct.
“This type of misconduct will not be tolerated at IDPH,” Claffey said.
Last month, Furlong issued a response to the investigation that was made public as part of the report, making clear that she didn’t create the notebook and that it was created before Willingham arrived to the division.
“Looking now — it was in poor taste; however, since everyone in Medical Cannabis participated and had knowledge and never complained to (redacted), Mr. Willingham or even (redacted) — I was unaware this was an issue,” Furlong wrote.
She also slammed the investigation itself.
“This investigation was a complete farce, since pertinent people were never interviewed. This investigation was targeted, not thorough,” she wrote.
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April 14, 2023 at 10:57PM