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The Jewish Card

Backed by rabbis, Harold Wishna meant business.
Colby Katz

Accompanied by a handful of rabbis, Harold Wishna lowered the boom on the North Broward Hospital District last week. The 75-year-old political power broker stood before the district board, which is appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, and complained that the public hospital system discriminates against Jews.

The gray and balding Wishna, who wore a George W. Bush reelection pin on the lapel of his dark suit, gave a ten-minute speech before the board, which met at the North Broward Medical Center in Pompano Beach. The gist of his claim was that too few Jews occupy supervisorial positions at the district, the county's third-largest employer.

It's the second time that the long-time Jewish community leader has brought up the allegation. Back in 1993, when Wishna served as a hospital district commissioner himself, his complaints led to increased advertising in Jewish newspapers. This time, Wishna held himself up as living proof of discrimination. After 20 months on the payroll, the district fired him in late January from his $52,000-a-year part-time job to promote NBHD to the Jewish community.

While the seven commissioners, none of whom are Jewish, sat in silence, he blamed the anti-Semitic culture for his firing. "I look at you, and I say, 'When is this going to stop?'" he said into the loudspeaker. "We have a right to have Jewish personnel treated right."

Wishna's claims made for quite a show at the board meeting and provided hot copy for the Sun-Sentinel, which published a story on the Local section frontpage with the headline, "Hospital district faces bias charge."

I don't doubt that there is a dearth of Jews working in the district's administrative offices. And Wishna is genuinely concerned about it, I'm sure. But his impassioned speech was, in reality, little more than a play of the Jewish card in an attempt to get himself back on the public dole. And his firing had nothing to do with his religion. Like most everything else that goes on at the district, it was as political as that "W'04" button pinned to Wishna's suit.

Wishna, in fact, will tell anyone who asks that he was really fired because of an ongoing power struggle between the former chairman, Paul Sallarulo, and the new one, J. Luis Rodriguez. The two commissioners have been engaged in bitter conflict for months. Wishna's saga involves the governor's office, the upcoming presidential election, and the George W. Bush camp's push for the South Florida Jewish vote.

To really understand why Wishna's job was terminated, you have to know why he was hired. And the reason for that dates back to 1979, when he moved to Broward from New Jersey and took a job representing dozens of temples as regional director for the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. As a conduit to the Jewish community, the job made Wishna a key political property.

Politicians wooed him, hoping he would help them tap crucial Jewish votes. Back then, Wishna was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and he befriended U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed him to the hospital board in 1991. He was also an early supporter of Bill Clinton, who invited him to his inauguration and again to the White House in 1996 for one of those famous coffees.

But in 1998, Wishna converted. Just eight days before Jeb Bush beat Democrat Buddy MacKay, Wishna announced that he was backing the Republican. Both the Herald and Sun-Sentinel reported charges by fellow Democrats that Wishna made the switch only because he wanted to gain sway with the impending Bush administration, which was way ahead in the polls. Wishna still denies that allegation, saying he simply didn't think MacKay was worthy of Chiles' legacy.

Instead of reappointing Wishna (Bush had others in mind), the governor put him on other boards, including the Council on Education Policy. In 2000, Wishna had to make a tough choice for president: He could either support Jeb's brother or back Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, the first Jewish vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. Publicly, he was mum, refusing to voice allegiance to either side. He says he wound up voting for Bush.

It wasn't until April 2002 that then-district chairman Sallarulo -- a top South Florida supporter of the Bush brothers -- helped Wishna land his $50-an-hour, 20-hour-a-week job to serve as a liaison with the Jewish community and to try to drum up new patients. According to one highly placed NBHD official, part of the deal was that Wishna would also use his clout to help reelect the president in 2004.

This, of course, is an explosive charge. Using taxpayers' money to buy support for a presidential candidate is the kind of thing that might draw the interest of the federal grand jury now investigating the district's business deals. But Wishna denies that the job entailed his public backing of the president, as does Sallarulo, who otherwise refused to discuss the issue. "I don't mix politics with my work at the district," Wishna says with a straight face.

 

Regardless, Wishna began to publicly support the president not long after taking the job, and in early 2003, he was named the statewide chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition's committee to reelect W.

Last week, Wishna told me he would resign from the Bush campaign if it would help him get his job back. But he's adamant that the district job is completely separate from his work for the president.

Wishna, as a district "executive consultant," tirelessly tried to drum up medical contracts for various services with predominantly Jewish condo boards. In his 20 months of employment, however, he never secured such an agreement. On January 31, NBHD Vice President Bob Burton fired him, saying there was no money left in the budget for his services.

Wishna says that shortly after that, he heard the real explanation from Jillian Inmon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. She told him she had learned from her GOP sources that he'd really been fired because of the ongoing feud between commissioners Rodriguez and Sallarulo. The conflict stems from Sallarulo's objection to the now-infamous 50 percent pay increase for Wil Trower and the recent vote to raise property taxes by nearly 12 percent.

"Rodriguez had me fired to get back at Paul for opposing the tax increase and Trower's raise," Wishna said.

When I contacted the RJC's Inmon in her Boca Raton office and asked her about Wishna, she seemed taken aback. "I'm a friend of Harold's, and he's been very helpful to our efforts," she said, "but this is a conversation I'm not prepared to have with a reporter."

Wishna sought the help of Denver Stutler, the governor's chief of staff, who arranged for Rodriguez to call the Jewish leader at his home. The conversation degenerated into a shouting match during which, Rodriguez claims, Wishna called him an anti-Semite.

Wishna also complained to the Anti-Defamation League that the district was discriminating against Jews but held off making it official until he would know if he could have his job back. The day before his appearance at the board meeting, he still hoped to get back on the payroll. "I want to work this out on my own," he told me. "If I do, I will work hand in hand with the district to fix this problem."

But will he win his job back? Not so far. Though his speech before the board ranged from angry indignance to olive-branch diplomacy, none of it seemed to work. Wishna even spoke into the microphone about his support for the Bush brothers. "If there is anything I am doing wrong, I will not take these [political] positions" anymore, he announced.

Wishna said, basically, that he wanted to be a uniter.

"I don't want to see a divisive Broward County -- we have never had problems with race relations here...," Wishna told the board. "I am extending a hand so we can work for the good of the community... I know the power you have, because I had it... I do hope we will be able to work together in harmony."

Long-time district activist Jane Kreimer addressed the board shortly after Wishna sat down and blasted the former commissioners. "It is not the province of the North Broward Hospital District to [financially] support former board members," she said, adding that Rodriguez should have called law enforcement when Wishna demanded his job back under threat of the anti-Semitism allegations. "It's extortion."

After everyone spoke, Trower claimed that Wishna was terminated along with 43 other people due to NBHD's ongoing financial problems. After the meeting, Wishna said he no longer wanted his job back. "I would not go back now," he said. "I can't work with these people anymore."

He added that he was even going to resign from the RJC's Bush campaign, then thought better of it. Is he still going to file an official complaint against the district with the ADL?

"Yes," he promised. While Trower spoke of 44 layoffs, roughly 100 staffers, by my count, have been cast off from the district during the past 18 months. The CEO claims these firings, along with the tax increase, were necessary because of NBHD's financial problems.

There's no doubt the district is in terrible economic shape. But that just makes Trower's recent $200,000 raise (which was cut in half after a public outcry) even more outrageous.

 

Don't worry, though. Trower has empathy for those who lost their jobs. While speaking about the firings at this past board meeting, Trower said he was aware the layoffs had caused much "pain."

"We always regret this... and I do understand that people get angry when they lose their jobs," he said.

Yes, Mr. Trower is a fine judge of human nature. But all that sympathy hasn't kept him from approving hefty raises for top brass even as he's taken the hatchet to the rank and file. A look at recent raises shows that, while lower-level workers received either minimal raises or none at all, many executives who already made lavish salaries pulled down double-digit pay increases last month. Broward General CEO Joe Scott, for instance, was handed a 15.8 percent raise -- this after a 10.2 percent raise last July. He now rakes in $290,000. In all, those raises could have gone to pay for two $30,000 annual salaries.

North Broward Medical Center CEO Pauline Grant was given a 16.7 percent raise, bringing her salary to $239,000. It was also her second big raise in the past year, which began with her making $178,000. Another couple of $30,000 salaries were lost there.

Imperial Point Medical Center CFO Robert Bugg netted a 26.4 percent raise, from $117,000 to $148,000. You can do the math.

The list goes on and on. I'm sure all those executive officers, like Trower, feel the pain of the lost livelihoods. Let's hope all that additional cash helps them get over their regrets.


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