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?

Administrative aide Lawrence says that after Gent left Telli began exerting more power than usual through her assistant, Byrnes, who Lawrence said virtually ran Hospice Care in the weeks following Gent's departure. For instance it was Byrnes, Lawrence says, who ordered her to write up the grant application for the landscaping work based on Skiff's landscaping company's plans. To Lawrence, who began working at Hospice Care as O'Donnell's assistant and then became Gent's aide, the order seemed well beyond the IRS-instituted powers of Telli, but she had no choice but to follow it.

In the weeks following Gent's departure, one employee after another either was fired or resigned. Gallo, who as human resources director had written Telli's new, diminished job description, resigned a day after Gent. "I was looking to better my career anyway," says Gallo, adding that he now has a more desirable job. "And I could see the tides turning, the board members resigning, Susan trying to regain power." Storch was fired. Jo Bronson, the marketing director, resigned, she says, because Gent left and she had other job offers. Wittnebert, who had 13 years with the hospice, and Rowe, there nearly ten years, were fired. Lawrence also was fired. The only reason given for all the firings was that their positions had been eliminated -- but staffers say the hospice has rehired people to fill many of the slots. In the space of three months, six supervisors and a long-time administrative assistant were gone, including all five employees who were on the list.

Ron Ploutz, the director of finance, says he knew that he, too, was on the chopping block. He says he was told by one of his staffers that Telli had asked what the financial ramifications would be if Ploutz "suddenly wasn't around any more."

In June the new director of operations, Javiar Ribe, told Ploutz he wanted to see the IRS agreement.

"Susan is out of control," Ploutz says Ribe told him. Ribe, as Gent's successor, needed to know the IRS guidelines in order to run Hospice Care, Ploutz says, adding that Ribe, who has limited experience there (three years), wasn't familiar with the IRS investigation at all.

Ploutz gave Ribe a copy of the agreement. On June 22 Ned Skiff called Ploutz into Susan Telli's office. Ploutz says he knew he was going to be fired -- he had been locked out of the hospice computer system over the weekend. He just didn't know why. "Get ready for your day," he says he told his staffers, "because I'm going to be fired."

He walked into Telli's office and found Skiff with another staffer and the Hospice Care chaplain. Skiff told him he was being fired because he gave Ribe a copy of the IRS agreement without the permission of the board. Skiff, who won't discuss the firing, also handed Ploutz a termination letter signed by Molinet.

With Ploutz gone, there is now no board member or staffer left who was present at the key IRS meeting two years ago, when Telli's reduced role was clearly outlined. Telli is left as executive director, with only Ribe, a relative newcomer, left to keep her in check. And Telli's friend, Skiff, took over the presidency of the board, which is the final-decision-making position at Hospice Care, on July 1.

Another long-time board member, Jerry Jordan, who runs Jordan-Fannin Funeral Homes, wouldn't comment about the firings and resignations.

"I don't think I want to talk about it at all without an attorney present," Jordan said. A few days after speaking with New Times, Jordan himself resigned. He said his resignation was because he felt he wasn't giving the board enough of his time and said it had nothing to do with the recent upheaval.

Ribe says he's been ordered not to say a word. It's a common refrain among hospice staff. Skiff himself refuses to answer most questions, citing the confidentiality of the IRS agreement and legal advice. Allegations that he and Telli orchestrated a coup at the hospice are also off-limits for discussion, he says, because it's all "tied in with the IRS agreement."

Latona, who sits on the board, hung up the phone when questioned about the hospice. When called again a combative Latona refused to discuss anything to do with Hospice Care. Telli's assistant, Byrnes, and Ribe went so far as to force a reporter to leave the main Hospice Care office after he asked to view a file containing tax filings and other information that by law must be available for public viewing. Byrnes received the reporter warmly the next day -- after hospice officials themselves received a call from an IRS spokesman confirming that they had to release the file or face federal penalties. Another board member, Jim Murphy, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, hung up the phone before answering a single question.

Despite the turmoil at Hospice Care, Skiff sent a glowing report to its founder, B.J. Buntrock, last month. He included a copy of an internal, year-end financial memo indicating good news: The hospice was running nearly $300,000 in the black. Skiff added a personal note: "This was passed on to me the other day. Thought that you would be pleased to know that things are well at hospice! Enjoyed our visit.... Love, Ned."

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