The Dearly Departed

Tax collectors and employees alike have decried Susan Telli's free-spending, power-hungry ways at Broward's Hospice Care. So why is she still in charge?

Elizabeth Huizenga Buntrock sits in the cramped office behind her Las Olas Boulevard flower shop smoking Carlton cigarettes and answering questions that lead to money, of which she confesses to having a lot. The middle name is no coincidence. Decades ago, her cousin, H. Wayne Huizenga, lived in her Chicago apartment while he and her ex-husband, Dean Buntrock, built Waste Management, Inc. It was Elizabeth Buntrock (known as "B.J.") who brought the two men together, planting the seed that became the Huizenga family empire.

"I believe that money is like manure," she says. "If you spread it around, it makes things grow. If you let it sit in a pile, it stinks."

None of the things she's made grow is more important to her than Hospice Care of Broward County, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides care and counseling for terminally ill patients who seek to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in a hospital.

Buntrock did more than pour a lot of money into the hospice. She organized it from top to bottom, directed its board, hired its staff. In 16 years Hospice Care has blossomed into Broward's foremost nonprofit hospice, one that cares for more than 1000 patients annually.

Now, she says, she has only one goal for Hospice Care: "It should go out of existence. I think it's so rotten now, we should put it down the disposal." From a woman who once watched over the organization "like a mother hen," it's a startling declaration.

But Buntrock has her reasons -- and she's far from alone. There's a platoon of people, mostly former employees, who also say Hospice Care should be put down the disposal. They all blame the same person, the woman Buntrock herself hired as CEO 15 years ago.

Her name is Susan Telli, a 53-year-old Broward socialite and activist on many causes who is deeply wired into the circles of influence in Broward County. Telli's husband, Bill, owns Lauderdale Reporting Service, a court reporting firm that has connected the couple to many lawyers in town. Susan Telli counts Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay as friends. Veteran state representative Anne Mackenzie, a renowned networker, is a long-time buddy. Telli chum Jack Latona, a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner, is on Hospice Care's board.

Carefully hidden from public view, however, is the fact that Hospice Care has been in turmoil for several years, ever since an ugly word reared its head: inurement. The word, in officialspeak, means personal profiteering from a nonprofit organization. Its root word, inure, is defined as "to habituate to something undesirable."

In 1993 a routine audit of Hospice Care uncovered some highly undesirable stuff, including improper expenditures and sloppy record-keeping. Telli and her chief financial officer, it appeared, had "inured" thousands of dollars. Among numerous financial improprieties discovered was a $140 bill for a party at the home of Ned Skiff, Hospice Care board member and recurrent candidate for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. Skiff, a close friend of Telli, was the only board member known to come under scrutiny.

Two years later the Internal Revenue Service audited Hospice Care and determined that the organization should be stripped of its tax-exempt status, a veritable death sentence, as state law forbids the creation of any new for-profit hospice. Instead the IRS cut a secret deal with Hospice Care, allowing it to retain its nonprofit status. Though Telli wasn't charged with a crime, the pact required her to repay $15,000 as compensation for funds she misappropriated for personal use, along with nearly $4500 in federal taxes on that money. She was allowed to keep her job, but the IRS stripped her of almost all power. Day-to-day operations and spending were put in the hands of the director of operations, Ruth Gent, and Hospice Care spending was put in the domain of the new director of finance, Ron Ploutz.

During the past six months, both Gent and Ploutz have left. Gent resigned after she was confronted with a mysterious "hit list" of employees to be fired. Ploutz was later fired by Skiff for a "breach of security" after he showed Gent's replacement a copy of the IRS agreement. Another six high-ranking staffers, many of them department heads, have since been fired or resigned.

Gent, Ploutz, and other ex-employees maintain that the upheaval was orchestrated by Telli as a way of reasserting her control over Hospice Care. Concerns abound that the institutional memories of the IRS investigation and the government agency's strict guidelines have been wiped out and that there's no one left to insure Telli adheres to the agreement.

Skiff, meanwhile, put out an agencywide order that no one, including Telli, speak to New Times. Telli failed to return several phone messages left by New Times at the hospice and her home.

Medicare and Medicaid dollars provide $6.8 million of Hospice Care's $8 million annual budget. The rest, more than a million dollars, is donated by a grateful and trusting public. Given these funding sources, it seems reasonable to expect Hospice Care would be forthright about its questionable financial history and its controversial CEO. But, considering the audits, the secret IRS agreement, and the recent spate of firings and resignations, Hospice Care has had a lot to hide.

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