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?

The first hospices appeared in England back in the early 1970s. Fittingly, a British woman started the first hospice in Broward County. Mary O'Donnell launched Hospice of South Florida in 1979. B.J. Buntrock, who'd recently cared for her dying aunt and was appalled at the lack of help she got, was one of its very first benefactors, donating thousands of dollars and volunteering her time.

It soon merged with another hospice from Miami. At about that time, O'Donnell left for England, where she was to marry an English naval officer. The merged hospice would eventually become VITAS Healthcare Corp., the largest for-profit hospice in the United States today and the only one, under current state laws, allowed to operate in Florida.

After the merger Buntrock formed a new and nonprofit hospice, called Hospice Care of Broward County, which was incorporated in 1981. Buntrock hired Telli in 1983, despite the fact that Telli had no education in hospice care and little if any medical or administrative experience. Buntrock says she immediately sensed that Telli's charisma and connections would make her an excellent front woman for the hospice. "She was bubbly and outgoing and willing to work hard," Buntrock recalls. "She knew the community, and I thought she'd do an excellent job in community relations."

At the same time she hired Telli, Buntrock called O'Donnell, who was then living outside London, and asked her to come back to Florida to work as the hospice administrator. Buntrock says she hired Telli as CEO to bolster her own power, and therefore the hospice's, in the community. She counted on O'Donnell, who was officially second-in-command, to handle administrative matters. While O'Donnell was answerable to Telli, Telli was beholden only to the board of directors. As CEO, Telli had final say on day-to-day operations.

O'Donnell says her first impression of Telli was positive, despite the fact that her new coworker had never been involved in the medical world. "She was very enthusiastic," O'Donnell says. "She had been a very active volunteer in the community. She seemed pretty open. Very street-smart. She was politically very adept. She tended to know most of the local politicians and quite a few in Tallahassee."

A Miami Herald story published in 1989 provides a glimpse of what drove Telli to become involved in hospice work. According to one article, 13 of Telli's friends and family members died during a seven-month period starting in 1974. In the article Telli was called a "self-described '60s idealist." In another profile Telli, who lives in the same house in which she grew up in the Rio Vista neighborhood, was called a "romantic."

According to O'Donnell and several other former hospice employees, there was a dark side to the romantic idealist. Telli's social charms, they say, veiled deep resentments and volatile behavior. Some weeks she'd come to the office early and formulate brilliant strategies that made Hospice Care flourish. Others, she'd be sullen and silent, or bedridden with mysterious illnesses, or enraged, say former employees.

Above all Telli seemed obsessed with guarding her power, O'Donnell says: "Long-standing was the intent to intimidate me, with peaks and valleys. I was accused of lying. I was accused of going to board members behind her back. I was accused of being no good for the organization. I was kept out of the loop. I do not know when Susan started to dislike me, but it was very early on."

In 1987 O'Donnell sat down in Telli's office for her annual evaluation. O'Donnell says Telli, sitting next to her in an armchair, suddenly apologized in tears. "She said she had been very jealous of me because she thought I was trying to take her job."

In the early '90s, O'Donnell and other hospice employees began to notice that Telli -- who had free reign over spending and personnel decisions -- was traveling more often, usually with Fay Miller, Hospice Care's chief financial officer. "I had absolutely no idea when they would be gone," says O'Donnell. "When they came back, I had absolutely no idea what they were doing."

Former hospice administrative assistant Jeanne Lawrence recalls the travels of Telli and Miller as well, and the packages and boxes -- the result of their shopping sprees -- arriving from wherever they were at the moment, be it Washington, D.C., or England.

Ron Ploutz, who began working for the hospice in 1991 as Miller's assistant, helped keep Hospice Care's books. He said he immediately noticed that the financial department was run haphazardly, with little documentation for the expenses of Telli and Miller. When he approached Miller, he says she told him not to concern himself with it.

"You're used to working for a large corporation -- we don't do it that way here," he says Miller told him.

In June 1993 Telli was given a roast at the Broward Center For the Performing Arts. The Sun-Sentinel described the scene, complete with "courtyard cocktails, lunch in the New River Room, lush and lovely pink-and-white roses on every table." City Commissioner Latona and his wife were there. "She gives more than anyone I know," Kay Latona says of Telli in the article. Anne Mackenzie, who, it was noted, "thinks the world of Telli," was the master of ceremonies.

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