Talk about a Code Blue.

That's hospital-speak for when a patient goes down and is in need of resuscitation. I'd say that fits the situation that unfolded Thursday in the labor battle between health care institutions and the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA).

For the past few weeks, 14 Twin Cities hospitals have pleaded poverty to rebut the MNA's charges that hospitals are dangerously understaffed. The coalition has preached fiscal responsibility when addressing planned pension cuts for nurses. Its representatives have looked negotiators for the MNA, and the public, in the eye and said: "Trust us."

In fact, the spokeswoman for the hospital coalition, Trish Dougherty, was quoted thusly: "If you overstaff, you are staffing for patients that aren't there. Is that a responsible way to spend the hospitals' money?"

Trust us, indeed.

It turns out that the woman whom the hospitals hired to be their human face on television, a licensed RN from South Dakota, knows more about hospital spending than anyone could imagine. Nurse Amy VanderLeest used Google and social networking sites to discover what hospital administrators apparently hadn't: Dougherty had been convicted of embezzling $15,000 from Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where she was director of human resources in 2002. And how did she spend that hospital money? On landscaping for her Sioux Falls home.

The union pounced on the information, a good sign that this battle will be ugly, and that the nation's largest nurses' strike is becoming more likely.

Dougherty took the money in 2002, supposedly to help a new employee pay off a student loan. Instead, she spent it on landscaping. Her sentence was stayed in 2006; she was put on probation for two years and repaid the money. Records show she was also reprimanded by the South Dakota Board of Nursing.

So, is it relevant?

John Nemo, spokesman for the MNA, makes a good case:

"This is all about trust -- about whether you trust the nurses who take care of you or the CEOs who run the hospitals to tell you the truth about staffing needs," he said.

The hospitals have spent months, and probably millions of dollars, trying to gain public sympathy for their position, and part of that strategy was to "put a pretty face, a former RN who can talk about hospital finances" in front of the media, Nemo said. "The fact she was convicted of stealing from a hospital is the irony of ironies. You can't make this stuff up."

Within hours of the union's leak, Dougherty was fired.

When Dougherty called me Thursday, she seemed on the verge of tears. She has been told not to discuss the issue at length, but offered some insight into her problems.

"In a nutshell, it was a bad time in my life," she said. "I had post-traumatic stress syndrome. It wasn't about the money; it was very complicated. I do public speaking on this and have been very transparent about it."

Dougherty said she didn't tell the hospital coalition about her past. "I don't say it to clients upfront," she said.

I think this was her mistake. I have to admit, I felt sorry for Dougherty. She's not some hardened criminal, and I don't believe someone should pay for a mistake -- in this case the potential loss of her livelihood -- forever.

But this should be a warning shot to employers: When you bring in a hired gun to demonize your workers or to soften your public face, you should know if their background is counterproductive to your message; if it's not relevant, stand behind them.

The hospitals issued a statement, which said in part: "Throughout this process, we have made every effort to be respectful of the nurses and the community, and this development falls short of the level of integrity the community has a right to expect. It falls short of our expectations for ourselves."

"Trish did a lot of nurse-bashing in her interviews, and that truthfully is what irked our member to Google Trish's background," said Nemo, who nonetheless expressed some sympathy for Dougherty. "The hospitals got caught at their own game," he said. • 612-673-1702