02/15/16 – By the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
The optics sure didn’t look good Wednesday at the North Broward Hospital District, which does business as Broward Health.
The seven-member board that oversees the public hospital system — which last year paid a $69.5 million fine after ignoring a whistle-blower’s claims of wrongdoing — chose not to discuss an explosive new claim of wrongdoing by their whistle-blowing private investigator.
Instead, they followed the advice of their general counsel, whom the investigator accuses of withholding evidence from the FBI’s corruption squad. And General Counsel Lynn Barrett wanted the discussion deferred to a closed-door meeting on another day.
Board members spoke of their commitment to transparency, of course. It’s a word you often hear before government shuts the door in your face. But if an outside lawyer says they can go behind closed doors to discuss obstruction-of-justice allegations, a five-member majority decided they will.
Led by Sheela VanHoose and Christopher Ure, the majority said they feared they might say something that could hurt a federal investigation, if there really is one. Without naming names, their ethics officer confirmed the district has been asked not to discuss details of a corruption investigation. And Barrett wondered how she could respond to questions if “one can’t confirm” the FBI is involved.
We, the Sun Sentinel, objected. The Sunshine Law lets government boards go behind closed doors for “shade meetings” if they’re discussing pending litigation, as happened in Broward Health’s recent whistleblower case. But we do not believe it is legal — let alone, appropriate — for this public board to prevent the public from hearing discussion of an email that alleges obstruction of justice.
Frankly, we expected to hear outrage from board members, who said they only just learned about a private investigator and a federal investigation. Besides, they could have discussed the process, without compromising the details, as Chairman David DiPietro strongly urged them to do.
Instead, by saying they didn’t want to impede an investigation, the board left hanging whether someone who reports directly to them had impeded the investigation. (Late Thursday, Barrett issued a statement unequivocally denying she had.)
It’s hard to know exactly what is happening at Broward Health, but there’s signs of serious trouble. Their CEO, Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, committed suicide three weeks ago. The evening of his funeral, Gov. Rick Scott announced his chief inspector general would investigate three years of district contracts for wrongdoing. About the same time, the private investigator hired by El Sanadi sent the board an email that blew the lid off an FBI investigation and accused the general counsel of dragging her heels in turning over evidence.
You can understand why some board members hated the idea of having to talk about all this in public. Ure was annoyed that DiPietro had called the meeting before someone determined whether they could talk in private.
But it had to be done. A public meeting is the only place public board members can discuss the issues they face, including whether to try to meet in private.
In fact, it would have been irresponsible for them not to meet. The public wants a response to the Jan. 29 email they received with this alarming subject line: “pending FBI investigation and assistance required — FBI still doesn’t have the suspect’s laptop!”
We expected better than an hour-long debate on whether to kick us out.
To their credit, DiPietro and board member Darryl L. Wright voted against the closed-door meeting. In fact, DiPietro later said he wouldn’t participate in such a scheme.
Do the other board members not see how this looks? Do they not know taxpayers are watching, slack-jawed?
Instead of addressing the questions swirling in this community, Ure suggested that detective Wayne Black possibly violated his confidentiality agreement by telling the board about the FBI investigation, which most said they knew nothing about.
But if his boss is dead and the general counsel is dragging her heels, what else should this detective have done? Doesn’t he have a responsibility to the people who ultimately pay his bill?
It’s interesting to note that Black now calls himself a whistleblower, because Broward Health lacks good history with whistleblowers.
By the way, Black is no fly-by-night private eye. His previous work at the district uncovered embezzlement in the finance office. He also once worked for Janet Reno’s public corruption unit. And presumably, El Sanadi hired Black because he trusted him to root out corruption rumors around the purchasing department.
Rather than thank Black for coming forward, the board dug into whether he had been fired, as the hospital said in an unsigned Feb. 2 public statement. Curiously, the guy who supposedly fired Black said he never did. Black says he never was fired and had talked to El Sanadi shortly before his death. If he wasn’t fired, DiPietro said he wanted it known that Black was still employed, rightly noting that it doesn’t look good to fire your investigator in the middle of an FBI probe.
It’s also worth noting that Black says media coverage has flushed out more witnesses. So despite the board’s concerns, public vetting can actually help an investigation.
Ure also was bothered that in responding to the governor’s Jan. 29 letter, DiPietro named the district’s internal auditor, Vinnette Hall, the IG’s requested point person. DiPietro explained he wanted to respond quickly, and assure the governor the district would be responsive.
Still, Ure was right. This was a decision the board should have made. For there’s debate about whether Florida’s chief inspector general has legal authority to investigate this county government entity. And Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, attending the meeting on a pro bono basis, says the board’s bylaws require the audit committee — now led by Wright — to take the lead.
Given where they were sitting, it’s understandable that board members Joel Gustafson and Rocky Rodriguez chafed when Berger said a board must take control when it faces “runaway management.”
But this board should consider how things look from where the public is sitting. And from our vantage point, something appears terribly wrong.
At Wednesday’s meeting, we heard references to contracts that exceed $100 million, a general counsel who doesn’t share information, a CEO who took his life, a private detective whose work was unknown to the board, a question of who fired who, and possible merger talks with the South Broward Hospital District.
Given all that, “runaway management” sounds like a fair assessment.
From what we see, the issues facing Broward Health are larger than a corruption investigation. Its governance structure also appears to be reeling from one crisis to the next.
This volunteer board needs to publicly address what’s going on at our public hospital system, which generates $1.3 billion in annual revenues, including $140 million from property taxes.
For by closing the doors on transparency, they made things look even worse.
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