A Couple Million Dollars in Cost-Cutting Not Enough to Keep Former Broward Health Attorney in Job

Documents recently made available by the North Broward Hospital District show that former general counsel Laura Seidman made major improvements to a legal department that -- by some indications -- had been full of cronyism and waste under attorney Bill Scherer. The most striking example of Seidman's progress: She reduced the district's outside billings by a third in just her first year, a savings of nearly $2 million for a public hospital district that depends in part on your tax dollars.

These findings suggest that whatever outrage there was over the political friendships that helped Seidman get hired in March 2006, there ought to have been even more outrage for the apparent political reasons she was pushed out the door two years later.

The legal department at the $1 billion district has been in a state of flux since September 2005, when Scherer was ousted. (For more on that move, check out this 2004 article by Bob Norman.)

Seidman was hired about six months later, despite having admitted in her interview that she didn't know much about health care law. She did, however, enjoy a friendship with Commissioner Robert Bernstein, a Republican donor and activist who has told me he met Seidman a few years before at a party by George LeMieux, who's since become Florida's newest U.S. Senator.

Based on this memo, which turned up during an internal investigation, Seidman clashed with Commissioner Rebecca Stoll, among others on the board. In the memo, Seidman informed the Broward Health compliance department that Stoll acted improperly by lobbying the hospital district staff to make a $10,000 donation to a favorite charity, the Museum of Science and Discovery in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Their relationship became even more strained, said Seidman in the memo, after the general counsel refused to participate in a plot by Stoll and her husband, attorney Steve Stoll, to oust then-CEO Alan Levine. Seidman claimed the couple threatened to file a bar complaint against her.

Steve Stoll has said that Seidman's claims are "fiction." Shortly after I posted an article about the Stolls' dealings with Seidman, a pack of documents arrived in the newsroom, anonymously. They were the minutes of the emergency meeting of the commissioners that occurred on April 7, 2008 -- five days after Seidman sent her memo alleging misconduct by Stoll and two other commissioners, Maureen Jaeger and Joseph Cobo, who is now the subject of a pending corruption investigation by the Broward State Attorney's Office.

From a Juice post this past August:

In the document, which Board Chair Mike Fernandez read to Seidman at the meeting, the general counsel was accused of "excessive absenteeism" and delegating "almost everything" in the legal department to her subordinates. That staff had grown under Seidman, it said, and yet her general counsel's office was sending out a great many legal bills to outside firms, a habit that made additional legal expenses for the district, which has funded partially through taxes. It had become evident, according to the commissioners' statement, that Seidman had a "lack of substantive knowledge of health care laws."

It was a clear signal that Seidman's days at the district were numbered.
 It appears that Seidman devoted much of the next two weeks of the job to crafting a document that would defend her record. On April 15, 2008, she gave commissioners a "business plan" that they had requested during the emergency meeting. In that document she describes how she instituted a system through which legal concerns are screened, ensuring that the legal department only sends out legal work when there isn't an in-house attorney versed enough in the issue to do that work at a fraction of the price. Billings to outside attorneys was $5.3 million in Scherer's final year. In Seidman's first year, it was just $3.5 million. And her staff was on the way to a similar finish in the year Seidman was pressured to resign.

Nine days later, on April 24, 2008, Seidman resigned. The attorney, who's now working in Boca Raton, has declined to grant interview requests in the past, citing the terms of her departure at the hospital district. And generous they were -- nearly a whole year of her $230,000 salary.

However dramatic Seidman's progress in cutting costs for outside billings, it's remarkable that by the time Marc Goldstone and Joe Truhe took over the general counsel's office in late 2008, they still found plenty of legal work that could be handled cheaply in-house but which was being sent to outside attorneys at considerable expense. In particular, their decision to curb expenses to a politically connected firm, Gray-Robinson, may have played a role in the pair's May 2009 firing.

Yep, seems that when it comes to practicing law at Broward Health, no good deed goes unpunished. You're liable to wonder what kind of general counsel commissioners want. Apparently, someone like Sam Goren, who was offered and took the job despite multiple conflicts of interest and who in his first few months has been paid at a rate approximately twice that of the men he replaced. He's doing so well, in fact, that the commissioners have decided to stick with Goren "for an extended period of time."

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