Broward News

NBHD: As One Ethics Probe Ends, Will a New One Begin?

It's no fun to write a letter alleging corruption and send it to the Florida Ethics Commission or the Broward State Attorney. No, if you really want to make a splash, announce the allegations during the public comment period for an unrelated ethics case. Especially one that's attended by a coterie of county big shots.

Yesterday, orthopaedic surgeon Michael Reilly attended the meeting of the North Broward Hospital District's Board of Commissioners to defend Joseph Cobo, who has a public role as a commissioner and who in his private capacity as a consultant handles the accounting and compliance for Reilly's Fort Lauderdale practice.

Among the allegations of impropriety, Cobo had been accused of handing out his private business cards during public functions he attended as commissioner. So Reilly felt entitled to recount an episode with one of Cobo's commissioner foes, Robert Bernstein.

"We met at a 2007 fundraiser for (Florida Sen.) Jeff Atwater," said Reilly to Bernstein, who was sitting at the dais with the other commissioners. "Right after I shook hands with you, you solicited me to buy shares in your Atlantic Surgery Center."

The pro-Cobo audience gasped -- then it erupted in applause. I called Bernstein this afternoon to get his comment on the allegation.

Bernstein has a different memory of their initial meeting.

"I'm a private businessman," Bernstein told me. "I owned a licensed surgical center that was for sale. Dr. Reilly was working with a group of doctors who were looking for a surgical center, and Cobo -- of all people -- brought him over to look at it. Somebody else bought it. Where's the conflict of interest?"

Well, there's the same *potential* for conflict that comes with every commissioner who has private health care interests -- that he would cast a vote on public contracts or policies that have some private impact. But the danger in a commissioner making private deals with doctors is that he should be tempted to use that position for leverage in a negotiation considering the doctor has every reason to not want to make an enemy on the all-powerful board. Or that commissioner could theoretically sweeten a deal with some favor he can offer as commissioner. At the very least, it's a delicate balancing act that Cobo, for one, is accused of bungling, and that board chair Mike Fernandez must balance based on his own private interests, being an executive with SonoSite.

One very obvious -- if somewhat improbable -- improvement: for Florida governors to stop appointing commissioners who have such conflicts. Bernstein is absolutely correct when he points out that he had health care business interests in 2005 when Jeb Bush appointed him to the commission.

"If somebody wants to investigate me," says Bernstein, "Go ahead."

Not likely. It's evident this last investigation has left a bad taste in the commission's mouth. And besides, who will the board hire? The last investigator was forced to give his report before it was ready, only to have his reputation dragged through the mud during a two-hour public meeting. So... any other former federal prosecutors interested in taking the case?

Didn't think so.

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Thomas Francis