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?

In October 1996 Telli's assistant, Pat Byrnes, asked Gent for authorization to spend $1160 for a going-away party for a staffer. Gent refused to authorize it, feeling the cost was too high for the hospice to justify. Telli spent the money anyway, says Gent, against her wishes and without authorization from anyone.

In May 1997 Gent discovered that Telli used hospice medical supplies for her own injured hand at a cost of $180. Gent billed her for it. Telli asked in a subsequent letter that about $75 of it be deducted and in so doing admitted to taking the supplies, which she noted were delivered directly to her Rio Vista house. To Ploutz and Gent, the incident constitutes inurement, and, though it may not seem like a lot of money, they say it goes directly against the principles of the hospice, which prides itself as a popular and well-regarded charity that attracts many volunteers.

"To Susan," Ploutz says, "the hospice was always her agency. But it isn't. It's the community's.... I know there are little old ladies out there on fixed incomes who gave just $5 believing it was going to do some good."

Both Gent and former hospice human resources director Jim Gallo say Telli also occasionally tried to persuade them to fire employees she wasn't pleased with, though that, too, was clearly spelled out by the IRS as being against the rules.

When Teeter left the structure of the hospice quickly collapsed.
At the time of Teeter's departure, Molinet, a Fort Lauderdale doctor, was serving as the president of the board. Set to take his place in July was Skiff. Gent says when Teeter left Telli remarked to her, without explanation, that "Hospicegate is about to end." Gent and other staffers say Skiff, who was set to take over the board presidency on July 1, began meeting on an almost-daily basis with Telli or her assistant, Pat Byrnes, "behind closed doors."

Then on March 23 came a strange meeting. Ruth Gent says she was led by Ned Skiff into a meeting of the financial committee. There she sat down with Skiff, Molinet, and three other board members: Marti Mehallis, Jose Pagan, and Frankie Thomas. Molinet, Gent says, had a piece of paper in his hand with five names on it. It would come to be known within Hospice Care as the "hit list."

On the list were five high-ranking employees, including human resources director Gallo; Marguerite Rowe, the admissions coordinator; Eric Storch, the administrator of quality assessment and education; Irene Wittnebert, a nursing supervisor; and Gent's administrative assistant, Jeanne Lawrence. Molinet did the talking, asking Gent to explain what each of the five employees did. He also asked if they were needed.

In Gent's 15 years at the hospice, it was an unprecedented act by board members, who never got involved in hospice personnel matters, at least not without being briefed on the matter by Gent, Gallo, or some other department head. She left the meeting "feeling terrible. I felt as if I'd just been through the Spanish Inquisition."

The burning question was where the list had come from. Gent, Ploutz and others have come to believe that it originated from Telli and reached Molinet through Skiff. But no one can prove it. Molinet failed to return repeated calls to both his medical office and his home from New Times.

Frankie Thomas, the only active board member who agreed to comment on the matter, says she had nothing to do with forming the list. She says that Skiff generated the list but added that other board members also seemed to be involved in it. She also says the list, as she understood it, was nothing more than the product of an effort to downsize Hospice Care and save money -- not some kind of political conspiracy.

Former board member Mehallis says she didn't generate the list either, but she also says she doesn't know where it came from. She resigned shortly after the meeting. She says she quit the board because her close friend Teeter had left and she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren.

Suspecting that the board had suddenly lost confidence in her and suspicious that Telli was maneuvering behind the scenes, Gent resigned a week later. She says that moments before she turned in her resignation letter, Telli called her on the telephone, wanting to know if she were going to fire two employees -- who weren't on the list. For Gent it provided one more reason to walk down the hall and resign, which she did.

Skiff refused to answer questions about the list. Teeter says he can't understand how Molinet or Skiff or any other board member could know enough about specific employees at the hospice to imply they should be fired. Mehallis says she doesn't think it's a board member's place to hire or fire anybody -- that was Gent's job as director of operations -- and she felt that the list, wherever it came from, was misguided.

Teeter says he feels that the loss of Gent -- who now works as a vice president at another hospice, which she requested not be named -- bodes poorly for Hospice Care, about which he says he still cares deeply. "I worked very closely with Ruth [Gent], and I, along with several if not all members of the board, had extreme confidence in Ruth," he says. "It would be almost inconceivable that in such a short amount of time there would be a 180-degree turn."

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