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Wake Sheriff: Jail Doctor Working Full-Time; Taxpayers Benefit

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WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — Last fall, a WRAL investigation questioned the work hours of the highly paid Wake County Jail medical director. The report hit a nerve with taxpayers.

Dr. Obi Umesi remains on the job; however, a lot has changed at the jail --changes that directly affect public safety and taxpayer dollars.

"I think I'm giving them the worth of their money," said Dr. Obi Umesi in a previous interview.

The doctor declined to talk to WRAL this time, but we found taxpayers are getting more return for their money.

Despite receiving a full-time salary, WRAL's 2002 investigation found evidence suggesting Umesi worked part-time hours at the Wake County Jail.

Donnie Harrison, Wake County's new sheriff, said times have changed.

"I said he would be here 40 hours a week and he has done that and will continue to do that as long as I'm sheriff or we'll be looking somewhere else," Harrison said.

At more than $155,000 a year, Umesi is Wake County's second highest paid government worker. Last fall, WRAL pored over the doctor's parking records, watched his activity at home and talked to current and former jail employees about his work habits.

"It's not right that you're going to be paid as a full-time employee and you only show up maybe ten hours a week. We can't do it. Why can he?," a co-worker asked.

"Considering the evidence, I think a lot of people assumed that he'd be fired. Well, I've got to have a doctor, and like I say, it's just like when I came in and I'm giving everybody the opportunity," Harrison said.

The doctor's parking records indicate he is making the best of that opportunity. From Dec. 1 to the present, Umesi has used the county parking garage about 40 hours a week -- far more than the average 10 hours a week over the previous six months.

"It wasn't fair, but now that he's here, I'm getting a lot of compliments," Harrison said.

Last fall, records showed Umesi moonlighting close to 50 hours a week at state prisons. From Dec. 1 to mid-January, the doctor spent about the same amount of time at Raleigh's Central Prison, but half as much at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.

The sheriff said having the doctor at the jail more has resulted in immediate benefits for taxpayers. Records show inmate transports to local hospitals like WakeMed are down by about 70 percent.

Harrison said that not only saves on hospital costs, but deputies who should be on patrol are not tied up in the emergency room.

Sheriff's officials said the sharp reduction in inmate transports is equivalent to putting at least two more full-time deputies on patrol.

Last fall, the doctor defended his hours because he is on-call 24 hours a day.

"Whether I'm at home, on the way, anywhere I am, I'm always, always making decisions about this place," Usemi said in November.

"I've been on call for 35 years and I didn't get paid for it," Harrison said. "He's an exempt employee and he must get his work done."

Harrison said he is still considering options for jail health care, including privitization.

For now, Umesi remains on the job at 40 hours a week.

While the doctor's work hours at the jail have increased, his moonlighting for the state has dropped slightly. Umesi is spending about half as much time working at the women's prison.