The Dearly Departed
Elizabeth Huizenga Buntrock sits in the cramped office behind her Las Olas Boulevard flower shop smoking Carlton cigarettes and answering questions that lead to money, of which she confesses to having a lot. The middle name is no coincidence. Decades ago, her cousin, H. Wayne Huizenga, lived in her Chicago apartment while he and her ex-husband, Dean Buntrock, built Waste Management, Inc. It was Elizabeth Buntrock (known as "B.J.") who brought the two men together, planting the seed that became the Huizenga family empire.
"I believe that money is like manure," she says. "If you spread it around, it makes things grow. If you let it sit in a pile, it stinks."
None of the things she's made grow is more important to her than Hospice Care of Broward County, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides care and counseling for terminally ill patients who seek to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in a hospital.
Buntrock did more than pour a lot of money into the hospice. She organized it from top to bottom, directed its board, hired its staff. In 16 years Hospice Care has blossomed into Broward's foremost nonprofit hospice, one that cares for more than 1000 patients annually.
Now, she says, she has only one goal for Hospice Care: "It should go out of existence. I think it's so rotten now, we should put it down the disposal." From a woman who once watched over the organization "like a mother hen," it's a startling declaration.
But Buntrock has her reasons -- and she's far from alone. There's a platoon of people, mostly former employees, who also say Hospice Care should be put down the disposal. They all blame the same person, the woman Buntrock herself hired as CEO 15 years ago.
Her name is Susan Telli, a 53-year-old Broward socialite and activist on many causes who is deeply wired into the circles of influence in Broward County. Telli's husband, Bill, owns Lauderdale Reporting Service, a court reporting firm that has connected the couple to many lawyers in town. Susan Telli counts Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay as friends. Veteran state representative Anne Mackenzie, a renowned networker, is a long-time buddy. Telli chum Jack Latona, a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner, is on Hospice Care's board.
Carefully hidden from public view, however, is the fact that Hospice Care has been in turmoil for several years, ever since an ugly word reared its head: inurement. The word, in officialspeak, means personal profiteering from a nonprofit organization. Its root word, inure, is defined as "to habituate to something undesirable."
In 1993 a routine audit of Hospice Care uncovered some highly undesirable stuff, including improper expenditures and sloppy record-keeping. Telli and her chief financial officer, it appeared, had "inured" thousands of dollars. Among numerous financial improprieties discovered was a $140 bill for a party at the home of Ned Skiff, Hospice Care board member and recurrent candidate for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. Skiff, a close friend of Telli, was the only board member known to come under scrutiny.
Two years later the Internal Revenue Service audited Hospice Care and determined that the organization should be stripped of its tax-exempt status, a veritable death sentence, as state law forbids the creation of any new for-profit hospice. Instead the IRS cut a secret deal with Hospice Care, allowing it to retain its nonprofit status. Though Telli wasn't charged with a crime, the pact required her to repay $15,000 as compensation for funds she misappropriated for personal use, along with nearly $4500 in federal taxes on that money. She was allowed to keep her job, but the IRS stripped her of almost all power. Day-to-day operations and spending were put in the hands of the director of operations, Ruth Gent, and Hospice Care spending was put in the domain of the new director of finance, Ron Ploutz.
During the past six months, both Gent and Ploutz have left. Gent resigned after she was confronted with a mysterious "hit list" of employees to be fired. Ploutz was later fired by Skiff for a "breach of security" after he showed Gent's replacement a copy of the IRS agreement. Another six high-ranking staffers, many of them department heads, have since been fired or resigned.
Gent, Ploutz, and other ex-employees maintain that the upheaval was orchestrated by Telli as a way of reasserting her control over Hospice Care. Concerns abound that the institutional memories of the IRS investigation and the government agency's strict guidelines have been wiped out and that there's no one left to insure Telli adheres to the agreement.
Skiff, meanwhile, put out an agencywide order that no one, including Telli, speak to New Times. Telli failed to return several phone messages left by New Times at the hospice and her home.
Medicare and Medicaid dollars provide $6.8 million of Hospice Care's $8 million annual budget. The rest, more than a million dollars, is donated by a grateful and trusting public. Given these funding sources, it seems reasonable to expect Hospice Care would be forthright about its questionable financial history and its controversial CEO. But, considering the audits, the secret IRS agreement, and the recent spate of firings and resignations, Hospice Care has had a lot to hide.
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.
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.
Miller was fired and Telli was put on administrative leave while another accounting firm, Keefe, McCullough & Co., was called in to do a more thorough audit of the hospice.
In November 1993 the Herald published an article on Miller's firing. Telli called her own administrative leave a "little vacation."
"There are some discrepancies," she said in the article. "I don't know what they are. I don't want to comment."
When a New Times reporter recently knocked on Miller's townhouse door in Sunrise and mentioned the hospice, Miller, who now works at a Target store and has never spoken publicly about her firing, quickly lost her temper. "I don't want to talk about it!" she screamed. "Leave me alone! I'm having a terrible time! I wrecked my car last week!"
In late 1993 Mary O'Donnell says she grew hopeful that Telli, like Miller, would be fired. Convinced that Telli would remain, O'Donnell resigned.
"She is the most lethal human being I've ever met in my life," O'Donnell says of Telli. "What is so hard to explain with her is her deviousness. A hell of a lot of people aren't going to believe all of this. She can be the most charming person, and she can have some extraordinarily good ideas. When she decides she's going to get somebody, the somebody might not even realize it until they suddenly realize they are going to be fired or forced to resign. I felt terribly betrayed by Susan. But the board is as culpable as Susan is. They've never listened to anybody else."
Board members, meanwhile, won't talk about any of it publicly.
Telli's rule over Hospice Care has been hit with more than just financial scandal -- there have also been instances of apparent conflicts of interest among some of the powerful friends she recruited as board members and hospice contributors.
One such friend was Michael Curran, an outspoken supporter of Hospice Care and a contributor. During the '80s and early '90s, Curran was a key figure in the Republican Party who was elected to the Wilton Manors City Commission. He was also an influential businessman who owned an investment firm called First Lauderdale Securities and served as the chairman of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.
Former hospice employees say Telli made no secret of her investments in First Lauderdale and encouraged them to do the same. When Ploutz, as the hospice director of finance, put some hospice money in another investment firm, he says Telli was angry that he hadn't put the money in First Lauderdale.
"I just felt it was better to keep [hospice finances] totally away from Susan's friends," Ploutz says. "I didn't want anything we did to even look like it may have been done as a favor for someone."
It was later discovered, according to news media accounts, that Curran had defrauded $3.2 million from family members and close friends, including Telli, who lost some $77,000. Ploutz says that after Curran's arrest he got a call from a tearful Telli, who was thankful he hadn't sunk the hospice money into Curran's firm.
Some former Hospice Care employees were also troubled by the hospice's business arrangements with Ned Skiff, the current board president. Skiff's firm, Ruttger-Skiff Associates, does the landscaping work at the hospice, located at 309 SE 18th Street. And when Skiff worked for a company called Deliverex, that company also got a contract to store hospice business records. Skiff told New Times that the jobs he's done for Hospice Care were bid out and that his companies came in with the lowest bids. He also admits that Ruttger-Skiff recently drew up plans to do $10,000 in landscaping for Hospice Care.
Skiff insists he hasn't taken any commission for the work his company has done for the hospice. "We did it at cost," he says. "I had our agency consult with legal counsel to verify that everything was hunky and dory," he says.
And then there is the $140 bill for a party at Skiff's house. Former hospice executive Gent says Telli told her it was a political fundraising party for Skiff's run for the city commission, one of two times he lost bids for the office. Skiff refused to comment about the party bill, saying it was part of the IRS audit.
"Ned has not been as ethical as he should be," Buntrock says.
When asked if he has behaved ethically as a Hospice Care board member, Skiff refused to comment, saying he'd been told by legal counsel --after initially addressing some issues -- not to say a word now about anything hospice-related.
In 1995 the IRS audited hospice finances for the years 1992 and 1993 after learning of the problems that cropped up in other audits. In a secret five-page agreement, which has been obtained by New Times, the IRS spells out what it found and what it believes should be done to the hospice: "The Service has determined that the exempt status should properly be revoked due to inurement activities, and the organization has agreed that such revocation would be justified."
But instead the IRS, citing the "best interests" of both itself and the hospice, decided to "settle, by agreement, all issues and matters currently in issue."
The IRS "wanted to leave the agency intact, and they felt that if Susan was to remain there, she would have to be tightly controlled," says Ploutz.
The agreement placed a dollar figure on Telli's wrongdoing. She was ordered to repay $15,000 to Hospice Care as part of the agreement. Telli, who makes more than $100,000 in salary and benefits annually, also had to pay the federal government $4442 in tax, penalties, and interest on the $15,000 as part of the settlement.
The president of the Hospice Care board at the time of the IRS audit, Jonathan Teeter, says Telli was kept at the hospice because she was invaluable to it and he feared that if she were fired, Hospice Care would go belly-up. Her networking skills in the "political and business arenas" were crucial to Hospice Care's success, he says.
"She, to use an expression, 'worked the room very well,'" Teeter says. "She could get Governor Chiles on the phone, or any number of political heavyweights for that matter. Buddy MacKay is another one. If Susan would have departed as a result [of the IRS probe], the organization would have ceased to exist within 18 to 24 months."
As for Telli's financial improprieties, Teeter says: "At no time did I ever believe or suspect there was any malice or aforethought or criminal intent involved." He adds that he can't explain some of the expenditures, but writes them off as poor judgment.
On June 12, 1996, the IRS and Hospice Care met to hammer out particulars of the agreement. In attendance were board members Teeter and Marti Mehallis, and Gent, Ploutz, and hospice comptroller John Harkins. Representing the IRS was Agent Judith Stark. Also present were accountants Tom Carpenter and Brian Pinnell, of Keefe, McCullough & Co.
The financial structure of the hospice was revamped. An audit committee would be formed to review agency finances each year. Strict controls were put on purchase orders, credit cards, and the hospice checkbook. All future travel had to be approved by Ploutz and Gent, except in the case of Telli. Her travel would have to be approved by the entire board of directors. Bonuses were outlawed. A good deal of the meeting dealt with Telli. According to Gent's notes taken at the meeting: "Susan Telli:
*Will not have ability to sign checks.
*Will not have ability to approve expenses.
*Will not have any responsibility for day-to-day operations of the agency.
*Will not have ability to fire or hire staff.
*Will have only one direct [subordinate] which is her administrative assistant."
The IRS, according to Gent's notes on the meeting, was very clear about what would happen if the rules weren't followed: "If and when the IRS returns for a future audit, if any one of these requirements [is] not being met, the agency will lose its tax-exempt status."
Telli's job title was changed to executive director -- which Ploutz says was deemed more appropriate than chief executive officer for a nonprofit hospice -- and her job description was rewritten. Her new role was to "develop, coordinate, and direct public relations activities for Hospice Care."
The written agreement was signed by Hospice Care board member Roland Molinet on September 24, 1997. The IRS included a clause noting that Hospice Care "agrees that no public statement will be made with respect to this Closing Agreement... without prior approval of the Internal Revenue Service." The pact is still secret, as far as the IRS and the hospice are concerned. "We can't verify it," said IRS spokesman Dom LaPonzina.
Skiff says he'd "love to talk about it" but can't. He says he issued the order that no one at the hospice speak to New Times "simply because there would be a breach of our agreement with the IRS."
But according to most of the high-ranking employees who have resigned or been dismissed from Hospice Care, Telli and Skiff are violating the spirit of the IRS agreement, if not the letter. Ploutz and Gent also have documentation supporting their contention that Telli has broken the agreement outright on a few occasions.
The management staff of Hospice Care has been gutted in the past six months. Just about everyone with intimate knowledge of the IRS agreement is gone. And that leaves Telli -- who both Ploutz and Gent say is intent on regaining her old power -- with little to stand in her way.
Most insiders trace the purge of employees to the departure of Teeter, who left in February of this year for a new job in California. Teeter was widely regarded as highly diligent in adhering to the IRS agreement and commanded a great deal of respect from other board members. "Most assuredly, unequivocally, I felt a duty to uphold the agreement," Teeter says. When it came to Telli getting her former powers back, Teeter says, "She knew and understood it wasn't going to be permitted."
But Telli, say several former staffers, simply refused to obey the rules handed down by the IRS. In July 1996, for instance, Telli signed a contract with Imperial Point Medical Center, which both Gent and Ploutz considered a direct violation of the IRS mandate that she not authorize hospice money to be spent.
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."
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."
Buntrock wasn't impressed.
She says she doesn't like seeing employees who she feels were doing good jobs getting discarded by the hospice that she started with her own money and hard work. Buntrock doesn't like the way Telli has squandered money at a hospice that was supposed to be based on volunteerism and caring. She says she doesn't want Ned Skiff as president or Susan Telli as executive director: She just wants Hospice Care to die.
"A lot of good people have been washed out and dumped out and treated very badly by Susan," she says. "I see a lot of people doing self-serving things. Susan is frankly feeding at the trough. This has gone on long enough and I don't think the place is salvageable.
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