Identity theft

— Scripps Health, the county's medical giant -- with 5 hospitals, 12 clinics, and 10,000 employees -- has settled with an Encinitas man who accused the nonprofit health-care operation of using a bogus name to collect bad debts. The complaint, filed by Michael Smith, alleged that Scripps used the fictitious name "Southcoast Recovery" to fool unwary debtors into thinking that the hospital chain had hired a get-tough debt-collection agency to dun its patients. In reality, according to Smith's attorney Robert L. Arleo, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in Old Town, Scripps was just trying to save the 30 percent commission that real debt collectors charge their clients, as well as to throw a bigger scare into delinquent accounts. Unfortunately for Scripps, the practice is against federal law. Letters from Scripps on the letterhead of the phony Southcoast Recovery threatened recipients that "Your credit may be affected for seven (7) years if you fail to contact us within ten (10) working days for immediate resolution. Credit records are reviewed by all major lenders as well as landlords, bankers, mortgage companies, auto dealerships, and many other companies that require credit information. Do not damage your credit." As part of its class-action settlement with Smith, Scripps agreed to stop using any fictitious names when collecting bills, and it changed the language of its dunning letters to something a bit more genteel sounding. "Your account has reached the Scripps Health Collections Department. A balance remains unpaid on your account listed above. Please contact our office to make your payment. You are hereby notified that a negative credit report reflecting on your credit record may be submitted to a national credit reporting agency if you fail to fulfill the terms of your obligation." The agreement also called for Scripps to fork over $75,000 in cash to North County Health Services, a nonprofit that helps provide health care to the uninsured, as well as to pick up Arleo's bill. According to Arleo, the settlement is believed to be the first of its kind in the federal court's Southern District of California. A spokesman said Scripps would not comment until the settlement received final aproval from the judge who heard the case.

Back scratching Ex-state labor commissioner Art Lujan, who lost his $96,000-a-year patronage job after Democratic governor Gray Davis was recalled from office last year, has been appointed to a $60,900 half-year gig to provide "varied professional labor compliance assistance" to the San Diego Unified School District. Before getting his state job, Lujan was business manager for the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council. In May 2003, a state auditor concluded that as labor commissioner Lujan had improperly collected $17,529 in car rental, hotel, and meal tabs. The audit also determined that Lujan's superiors said his "primary dwelling" was his office in San Francisco, rather than his home in Escondido, thereby allowing him to get cash for commuting back and forth to San Diego. Lujan's San Diego schools appointment, personally engineered by superintendent Alan Bersin, is just the latest wrinkle in the district's troubled Prop MM rebuilding program, criticized by local subcontractors for making late payments. According to his contract, Lujan is to perform his services "on an as-needed basis."

Condo dogs and scud studs It was a day for the dogs at downtown's Pantoja Park one recent sunny weekend when wealthy pet owners from nearby condos turned out in force to watch a beauty and talent contest for their pooches, dressed as divas, socialites, and other kinds of party animals. Judges included power lobbyist and lawyer Paul Robinson as well as Annie Malcolm, wife of David Malcolm, the ex-port commissioner who pled guilty to conflict-of-interest charges related to a South Bay power plant. The event -- which also featured displays by dog taxi owners, high-end pet groomers, and doggy day-care proprietors -- was organized by Robinson's wife, real estate woman Trudy Stambook, who specializes in condo sales at the poodle-friendly Meridian high-rise, into which the Malcolms recently moved ... The asking price for aging movie idol Cliff Robertson's oceanfront mansion in La Jolla, originally listed at $25 million a year ago, has been reduced to $19 million. The 1922 mansion, built for East Coast shipping magnate Phillip Barber, sits on 1.4 rolling acres but has been slow to sell ... Aussie tabloids are having a field day over an alleged October 6 kiss in an Encinitas bar between San Diego exotic dancer Brooke Tigh and tennis star Mark "the Scud" Philippoussis, whose latest flame is reputed to be Paris Hilton. Before that, Philippoussis dated Australian pop singer Delta Goodrem.

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