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Internal Memo: Ethics Rule Is a "Joke"

Shortly after health care consultant Joseph Cobo was appointed by the governor to the board of the North Broward Hospital District in September 2007, the new commissioner allegedly approached the district's general counsel with a bold request. Laura Seidman alleges that Cobo told her "that he and 'some other commissioners' wanted to have the 'no interference' clause repealed from our district charter."

Not exactly a graceful entrance, considering that the Sunshine statutes prohibit commissioners from having the kind of pow-wow Cobo allegedly described. But that's not even the biggest problem for Cobo's pending criminal investigation.

Rather, it's that Seidman's story drives perilously close to the question of corrupt intent, a factor that can be crucial in a criminal case of the kind the Broward State Attorney's Office is considering against Cobo.

The non-interference provision of the district's charter dictates that commissioners avoid involving themselves in the day-to-day operations of the district, which has an executive management team to make those decisions based purely upon the best interests of Broward health care consumers as a whole. The provision exists to insulate executive management from the kind of private business interests that might lead a commissioner to influence district policy and the spending of its $1 billion budget. That may be particularly tempting for a guy like Cobo who is the CEO of Florida Medical Management Consultants, which represents Broward physicians who have dealings with the district.

Since hospital district commissioners are not paid, it's assumed (naively, perhaps) that they accept the governor's appointment out of a solemn, selfless dedication to the cause of health care excellence for their neighbors.

If Cobo is a true believer in that principle of public service, as the many pillars of Broward society testified during a May 27 meeting, it's difficult to reconcile with the antagonistic view of the non-interference provision attributed to him in Seidman's memo. Shortly after his arrival to the board, says Seidman: "Commissioner Cobo told me the language (in the provision) is a 'joke' and 'everyone in Tallahassee is laughing."

They're not laughing anymore. Crist staffers have a U.S. Senate campaign to worry about, and it's no good when the governor's handpicked commissioner, in one of the nation's 10 largest public health care districts, gets hit with a criminal investigation. Nor is it particularly good timing for another Crist appointee, board chair Mike Fernandez, to be caught interfering in the internal investigation that led to that criminal one.

The Seidman memo, which you can read here, is much less specific in describing the ways in which Cobo's alleged interference affected hospital district decision-making than is the May 7 report by Martin Goldberg, the attorney retained by the district to investigate Cobo. (For details of Goldberg's findings against Cobo, read this post about how he allegedly left a doctor feeling hustled, this post about how he tried to help a client get a better deal on rent from the district, and this post about how he allegedly traded favors as a commissioner to enjoy some favors as a private citizen.) But the memo does reflect exactly the kinds of friction that a non-interference provision is designed to prevent. Seidman writes:

Brian Ulery, Vice President of Physician Services has told me that Commissioner Cobo is in his office 'way too much.' Likewise, Senior Vice President Joe Rogers complained that Commissioner Cobo is 'too involved.'"
'Seidman continues:
The reasons the commissioner, who makes his living performing accounting / consulting services for physicians, wants to eliminate the hands-off charter provision are obvious.
The memo also contains allegations of ethical misconduct by Commissioners Rebecca Stoll (that post is here) and Maureen Jaeager (posted here).

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Thomas Francis