Bleeding Dollars

When Alan Levine left his post in late 2006 in then-Gov. Jeb Bush's administration to take the top job at the North Broward Hospital District, he made sure to get paid.

Not only did Levine, a rising star in national GOP circles, negotiate a deal that would pay him a hefty $670,000 in salary and bonuses but he also received a car allowance and a secret $35,000 payment to relocate to Broward County.

It's the relocation payment — along with a few personal travel expenses Levine charged to the district — that has caused some controversy at the district. The hospital agency, which now goes by the name Broward Health, is supported with taxpayer dollars.

The controversy arises because Levine, who left the district at the beginning of this year to take a job as Louisiana's top public health official, never actually relocated.

The questionable payments to Levine were discovered in a recent review by the auditing department, and the revelations do more than sully Levine's squeaky-clean image. They also provide more evidence of the district's dubious spending on high-ranking employees.

The public health system, which runs five hospitals, including flagship Broward General, often behaves like a big-spending corporation, and taxpayers, who have pumped $200 million into it, are left holding the bill.

Levine's relocation agreement primarily covered the "reasonable cost of moving the newly recruited employee's household goods from Tallahassee, FL to the Fort Lauderdale area," according to a copy of the document that he signed on July 19, 2006.

Those household goods, however, stayed in Tallahassee with his wife and teenaged daughter. Instead of relocating, he rented an apartment and traveled every weekend to the family home while serving as CEO for the district.

Further, Levine produced no receipts, though the agreement specifies that he is to be reimbursed. Despite the lack of documentation, Levine was paid the $35,000 in a lump sum.

Board member Robert Bernstein, who was Levine's closest friend on the board, says he believes the relocation agreement should have been presented to the board. But at the same time, he denounces audit director David Richstone's investigation.

Bernstein said Richstone recently called him about the investigation and he told the auditor that he should shut it down immediately.

"I said, 'As far as I'm concerned you're wasting the board's time and money by investigating Alan on this,'" Bernstein recalls. "There was no fiduciary duty for Alan to do anything because Alan wasn't working for the board at the time."

Bernstein said he told Richstone that if he brought the investigation before the board, he would ask for his resignation.

With the investigation in limbo, Levine says he didn't learn about it until I called him last week. The former CEO insists he did nothing wrong.

He says he spent nearly $60,000 on rent and furniture on the apartment he rented during his tenure at the district.

The agreement includes a provision that says "the newly recruited employee can utilize relocation moneys for temporary living expenses if there is a delay in moving into a residence."

The "delay" in Levine's case, however, was 18 months, the entire time he was employed by the public health system.

"This is something we negotiated on the front end," Levine says. "It's easier just to get a lump sum. I'm pretty sure we went by the book. I don't have any discomfort with what was negotiated. If the board did something wrong with how they negotiated it, I don't know how to respond. I negotiated for me."

In addition to the relocation payment controversy, auditors found that Levine had charged some personal travel expenses to the district. Though the nature of the improper charges hasn't been made public, Levine says he has been made aware of two specific cases, one in which he charged the district for personal travel and another involving personal parking expenses.

"I can tell you I would never deliberately do that," Levine explains. "Why would I? I was making a lot of money... I'll happily either dispute it or pay for it. This is a good thing from my perspective. It shows we have a control system that works. It's embarrassing. I'm a human being, so I probably made a mistake."

He says there has been no overture made by the district that he return any money, including the $35,000. He said that at least one of the improper expense payments involved his district-issued credit card, which he said he only recently learned had a whopping credit limit of $1 million.

"I didn't even know about the $1 million limit at the time," he said. "That's something that should be changed."

Levine, who was head of Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration before Gov. Bush sent him to take over the district, says that he intended to buy a house and move his family into the area but that the high cost of housing, plus the fact that property values were in decline with no sign of bottoming, kept him from ever doing it.

The fact that his daughter was in high school at the time and his mother-in-law was suffering from cancer also made it more difficult, he says.

"Certainly, I was intending to buy a house," says Levine, who was called a "superstar" by his new boss, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, after naming him secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "I actually looked at three different houses. The property values were dropping so fast. Buying a decent house was three quarters of a million to a million dollars, and we saw the market declining, so we made a decision that unfortunately a lot of people are making, which was to wait."

He says he traveled to Tallahassee nearly every weekend to see his family, always at his own expense. The fact that he didn't live full-time in Broward full-time led to some criticism since he missed numerous community events, including political galas and charity benefits, he was expected to attend.

"It was a concern to a lot of people," says district Commissioner Rebecca Stoll, who has been critical of Levine's leadership. "It was important that he live in the community. It's a community hospital. That's what we are. He never went to any events, and that's just not right, especially when you're one of the highest-paid public hospital officials in the state. But I bet he never missed a Gators football game." The University of Florida is Levine's alma mater.

Levine's stop in Broward County was a gold mine for the bureaucrat. In his new government post in Louisiana, he's taken a 60 percent pay cut, but the district allayed the sting of that lost compensation by paying him three months' extra salary, about $140,000, as a consultant.

That number alone would be enough to scandalize any local government. But the district, which was formed by the state for the sole purpose of providing health care to the poor, has morphed into a giant health-care organization with dynastic ambitions. For years, it has behaved more like a high-rolling corporation with taxpayers' dollars.

Consider that while Levine was receiving his consulting money, the district was actually paying out three CEO salaries. In addition to acting CEO Frank Nask, the health system is also still paying the salary of former CEO Wil Trower, who quit in 2006.

Trower, who left the district in a mess of waste and corruption, continues to receive his salary of $523,000 and benefits as part of his exit package, which doesn't run out until the end of this year.

There's more. District General Counsel Laura Seidman, who rarely actually went to work at the district, resigned after the board put her on notice for poor job performance. She too received a golden parachute.

Seidman, who is the wife of Broward County Judge Lee Jay Seidman, will be paid her $230,000 salary, plus $10,000 in legal expenses, through March of next year. Both Bernstein and Stoll say the practice of giving such generous severance packages must end.

"I didn't want to pay Laura and Alan anything," Stoll says. "But we have lawyers and we have people advising us, and we have to listen to them."

In all, the district will pay more than about $1.5 million in compensation to three officials who have left the district.

With that in mind, it's no wonder the district didn't think anything of giving out a $35,000 relocation payment for a health official who never really moved to the area.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman