AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The man in charge of an Austintown addiction recovery center will be going to court on Wednesday to try to keep the state from shutting the business down.

Sebastian Rucci, executive director of the California Palms facility, says the center is helping people and needs to stay in business.

After nearly six years in business, Rucci admits operations at the California Palms aren’t perfect.

“I don’t have to be perfect. The rules provide for you to get fixed, come out here and fix,” he said.

Rucci is fighting efforts by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to close the place, which now houses close to 100 clients.

“I 100 percent know that we’ll win,” he said.

Rucci says the problems started two years ago when the state found what were called “deficiencies” in treatment, staffing and other issues.

“The stuff that they claim that were defective were clinical issues that I was fixing every time,” he said.

Rucci says although he has offered proof of corrections, he claims the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has never been back to inspect again.

But, three weeks ago, dozens of state and federal agents raided the campus, looking for what we were told was evidence of Medicaid fraud and drawing comparisons to the search of another recovery center four years ago.

Rucci insists he has done nothing wrong.

“I’ll answer questions, I’ll give you documents. Come in and help and correct and don’t do the other stuff, but they can do whatever they want,” he said.

Those we spoke with at the facility said it has changed their lives and they don’t want to see it closed.

“Since I got here, I have changed everything about myself, not just putting down the alcohol or whatever,” said client Chris Cope.

“The way things are set up and the way the program’s ran for us is like nothing else,” said client Josh White.

In the meantime, Rucci says he’ll fight the state and the feds in court.

“I have the constitutional rights — equal protection, due process — and I have their statutes, all of which favor me,” Rucci said.

Eric Wandersleben, director of media relations and outreach for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, sent us the following statement on the matter.

As the agency responsible for licensing and certifying behavioral health care providers and services in Ohio, OhioMHAS has a duty to ensure that providers comply with all rules and regulations spelled out in OAC and ORC. We take this oversight responsibility seriously and we prioritize quality care and patient health and safety. When issues of non-compliance arise, our team follows established guidelines and procedures in an attempt to help bring a provider back into compliance. These initial measures may take the form of technical assistance and/or plans of correction. In these instances, a provider is given ample opportunity to identify and resolve areas of non-compliance. When a provider fails to bring its operations into compliance, the next step in the process (outlined in Section 119 of ORC) is often an administrative action seeking the revocation of licensure/certification.  

California Palms has had a history of repeated non-compliance and failure to comply with previous plans of correction in the allotted timeframe — despite being given ample opportunity to do so. This led the department to move forward in June 2020 with administrative action seeking the revocation of California Palms’ certification. The Department made three unannounced site visits in the year leading up to the issuance of the notice of intent to revoke letter being mailed in June 2020. The process to revoke included an administrative hearing in April 2021. An independent hearing officer presided over the hearing. California Palms had the opportunity to present any and all information that was beneficial to them at the administrative hearing. The hearing officer did not find the case presented by California Palms to be persuasive and recommended to the Department that certification be revoked. The Department upheld that decision and issued a final adjudication order on 9/28 (shared previously) that notified California Palms of the decision to revoke certification effective Oct. 28. ORC Chapter 119 provides an opportunity for a provider to appeal the adjudication order, which brings us to the present.

The appeal is filed with the Court of Common Pleas. California Palms has also filed a motion seeking a stay of the adjudication order. The Attorney General’s office, which represents the department in legal matters, will be filing a motion opposing the request for the stay.