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?

Telli was getting such adulation for more than just running Hospice Care. She has served on many civic and charitable boards, including the Broward County Community AIDS Task Force, Broward House (which also helps AIDS patients), and the Broward County Committee For the Prevention of Child Abuse. She's also a trustee on the board that oversees Fort Lauderdale's public cemeteries.

No one at the picture-perfect roast could have known that the hospice would nearly be wrenched apart in the coming months.

In September 1993 O'Donnell went on vacation to England. When she returned to work, she says, employees came to her office and told her they believed the board was covering up some financial discrepancies with the agency. "They perceived that Susan Telli and Fay Miller were very involved in it," O'Donnell says.

Those visits coincided with the results of the annual audit conducted by Fort Lauderdale accountant Grant Thornton. Thornton's report found "significant deficiencies" in the way money was spent at the hospice. In a letter to the hospice dated August 20, 1993, Thornton noted a litany of financial transgressions, including a $5000 loan of hospice funds to Miller approved by Telli, and the issue of several checks made payable to cash by Telli. Such checks, Thornton added, "should be very rare in an organization of this type... without adequate supporting documentation, it is impossible to determine if such funds are actually spent for a valid business purpose of the Organization."

The accountant's report also called into question the use of two corporate American Express cards used by Telli and Miller.

"The only supporting documentation surrounding the payment of American Express bills were the monthly statements," Thornton wrote. "As part of our examination, we noted numerous charges on these cards for local restaurants, home furnishing centers, department stores, and other organizations."

In a note that would prove prescient, the auditor wrote that continued use of the American Express cards "could result in adverse personal tax consequences for the Executive Director and the Chief Financial Officer in the event of an Internal Revenue Service challenge."

Thornton also questioned the travel advances given to Telli and Miller, of which they found several, ranging from $750 to $2000. "In each of these circumstances, the expense report submitted by the employee indicated total expenses in an amount [that] exceeded the advance taken by a nominal amount. However, there was a substantial lack of supporting receipts and other documentation to indicate that the expenses had actually been incurred."

Based on what he'd seen, Thornton warned that Hospice Care might lose its tax-exempt status, noting that IRS codes strictly forbid inurement.

O'Donnell, meanwhile, says she began finding mysterious manila folders sitting on her desk. She says she still doesn't know who left them there. In the folders were copies of hospice checks or expenses that seemed questionable, some of which O'Donnell kept and provided to New Times. There was a copy of a check signed by Telli for a child's recliner at a wholesale club. There were nearly $3000 worth of checks made out to cash and documented to have been for Hurricane Andrew relief, some of it earmarked for a group known as "Miami Hospice." No such hospice existed, O'Donnell says. There was a $70 check made out to the swank Fort Lauderdale Tower Club for Susan Telli's membership dues.

Ploutz, who took Miller's place after she was fired, says that during the next couple of years, while he was working with auditors and the IRS sorting through the mess, he saw that Hospice Care had footed the bill for hundreds of dollars' worth of expensive luggage for Telli. He also says he saw that Telli and Miller, who had absolute control over Hospice Care's purse strings, had given themselves annual bonuses of as much as $5000 during the early '90s. Both he and Gent say they saw a Hospice Care check for more than $1000 that was used to pay the bill for a personal hospital visit by Telli.

There was a lot of explaining to do.
"I was enraged," Buntrock says. "We had worked so hard, and here [Telli] was pissing away our money. It's difficult to deal with someone who doesn't understand that they aren't dealing with their own money."

Not long after the audit uncovered the wrongdoing, an anonymous letter, which was recently obtained by New Times, was sent to the board of directors. The letter showed intimate knowledge of hospice dealings and the misspendings of Telli and Miller, including details that the accountant Thornton hadn't mentioned. The letter reflected an attitude of contempt for Telli's financial recklessness that several former employees say was common, though never expressed for fear of reprisal.

The letter mentioned the loan to Miller and noted that it was against federal rules to loan anyone Medicare or Medicaid money. "Such laws concerning Corporation and Public funds are common knowledge throughout the agency, and pleading ignorance by Management shows either gross incompetence or lying with intent to deceive," wrote the letter's anonymous and still-unknown author.

Other staff concerns, according to the letter, were "the incompetency of Fay Miller and extravagant use of money; and the frequent absenteeism, excessive travel, and frequent local entertainment costs of [Telli]." It mentioned checks for "Telli family flowers" and huge annual bonuses that had been paid out.

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