Broward News

New Broward Health Board Seeks Distance From Unsavory Past

Broward Health CEO Frank Nask's job is safe, as is that of a friend who he hired and to whom he gave a generous raise. Commissioner Mike Fernandez has received legal assurances that his job with an ultrasound manufacturer is not a conflict of interest. And seven appointed board members were present at this morning's meeting, for the first time in about eight months. None of those seven argued with one another.

If you had to judge purely by this happy and harmonious affair, you'd never know that this public hospital district had been struck with scandal. Rather, this was an occasion for introducing the four new board members appointed last Thursday by Gov. Charlie Crist and for "looking forward" -- a phrase that seemed to be on every commissioner's lips, new and old.

If only it were that easy.

The new board will have to wrestle with a great many ethical questions that were left unanswered by the previous board -- most of which involve commissioners Mike Fernandez and Joseph Cobo, who remain in their positions. After today's meeting, I spoke briefly with them.

I asked Fernandez to respond to an allegation made last week by Commissioner Robert Bernstein that Fernandez and Cobo had "tanked" the meeting -- that is, avoided attending expressly for the purpose of delaying a vote on Bernstein's motion to terminate Nask as CEO.

Fernandez denied it. "I had a business meeting in Seattle," he said. "I was told I could vote by phone, but I wasn't aware until that time that that would not qualify for a quorum."

Cobo also denied Bernstein's claim. "Last week I had a kidney stone," he said. "There was no collusion." Speaking of Bernstein, Cobo added, "I wish the commissioner could experience three times the pain I was in."

The "former" commissioner, that is. Last week the governor's office decided not to renew Bernstein's term on the board. Considering how they'd become such fierce enemies, I asked Fernandez whether he had had any role in convincing Crist, his former fraternity brother, to get rid of Bernstein. "No,'" he answered.

At the outset of this morning's meeting, board Chair Rhonda Calhoun struck three items from the agenda that had been posted at Bernstein's request. The item requesting a board vote on Nask's termination, said Calhoun, would be effectively revisited in March, for Nask's scheduled performance appraisal. She reasoned that it would give the four new commissioners a chance to work with Nask and to form their opinions accordingly.

Bernstein's removal was also a blessing for Nask's friend, Deborah Breen, the vice president of financial operations who received two generous raises in 2008 when she assumed the role of interim chief financial officer. The agenda item by Bernstein demanded an explanation for why Breen kept the bigger of those two raises in the period since leaving the interim CFO's position. It appears that question will go unanswered, as no other commissioner brought it up at today's meeting.

The third Bernstein agenda item that was struck requested that the board file an ethics complaint based on Fernandez's failure to disclose a conflict of interest as it related to his public office and private position as a salesman for SonoSite, the ultrasound manufacturer that does business with the district.

Even before Bernstein was removed, Fernandez himself had asked General Counsel Sam Goren to give a legal opinion on whether Fernandez was in violation of the state ethics code. This morning, Goren circulated an opinion in which he found that Fernandez had not. The opinion cited SonoSite's having done business with the district prior to Fernandez's arrival to the board and a claim by Fernandez that his position dealt entirely with SonoSite sales in Latin America -- not in the U.S. or Broward County. All the same, Fernandez volunteered that the Florida Commission on Ethics review his status and advise the board about any ethical problems.

"I think we're back to business," beamed Calhoun in the minutes after the meeting. But this board will be haunted by the past. Cobo remains under pending criminal investigation for ethical misconduct, a case that originated from an internal investigation that Fernandez unilaterally shut down.

The district is in the midst of a massive, costly internal investigation into the possibility that it has committed fraud in its dealings with physicians, a situation that threatens to bloom into a federal investigation and millions of dollars in sanctions.

Finally, it has to defend itself in lawsuits against the district's former general counsel and associate general counsel, who were both fired in May on questionable grounds and who are now seeking damages through the Federal Whistleblowers Statute.

"We're just going to tackle each issue in front of us," said Calhoun, who is restricted from talking in detail about the pending litigation and criminal case. At this morning's meeting, acting General Counsel Goren asked commissioners to work with him to schedule a "shade session" -- that is, a private pow-wow to discuss how to handle lawsuits brought by the two attorneys who previously held his position.

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Thomas Francis