Broward News

No End in Sight: Ethics Scandal Spreads to North Broward Hospital District Chairman

Documents recently released by the North Broward Hospital District show that its chairman decided his board didn't have a corruption problem so much as a Martin Goldberg problem. That's the name of the former assistant U.S. Attorney who was hired by the district's Board of Commissioners to investigate allegations that one of their own, Commissioner Joseph Cobo, had improperly used his public position to boost business in his private work as a health care consultant.

Before I left for vacation two weeks ago, I requested the chance to speak with district chair Mike Fernandez. But since the Cobo case has become a criminal investigation, which is still pending, I was told Fernandez would not talk to me.*

Evidently, those concerns didn't keep Fernandez from talking to the Sun-Sentinel.

Peter Franceschina's article is excellent, but the big dailies tend to be stingy with the four-letter words that Fernandez favors, as well as with the print space you need to put an episode like this into the big picture. Plus, the quotes by Fernandez and Cobo from that article carry such an overwhelming stench of dishonesty that they're hard to ignore.

After the jump, your health care chairman makes a bid for Broward's most ethics-blind public official.

Back in early May, after I reported what Goldberg found in his investigation of Cobo, Fernandez got in touch with me. The chairman explained how he had a dentist appointment later, but that by talking to me he'd be getting rid of the day's most dreaded chore.

Fernandez conceded that the findings against Cobo were an embarrasing moment for Broward Health, a 2-year-old corporate moniker that's less stained by scandal than "North Broward Hospital District." But he stressed that this was a necessary step in rooting out corruption of the kind that existed only a few years before.

"Since September 2007 [when Fernandez was appointed to the board by Gov. Charlie Crist], there has been a move to make what we do more transparent and open to the public," says Fernandez. "The board has gone out of its way, and this an example: An ethics violation is something the board looks at as a serious charge -- and we investigated it."
Your public health care district chairman spoke those words on May 12.

Now let's listen to what he said exactly two weeks earlier: "Unless you have money in Cobo's pockets, why are we doing this?" raged Fernandez in a meeting with Goldberg on April 29, at which he demanded that the attorney end the investigation. "What's the point?"

That's how Goldberg remembers it anyway. He jotted notes from their exchange, and those notes are part of the investigative files he turned over to the Broward State Attorney's Office in connection with its own investigation of Cobo. Here's a link to the relevant notes, if you want to read along with me.

The documents suggest that while Fernandez and his fellow commissioners asked for an independent and thorough inquiry into Cobo's alleged misdeeds, the chairman didn't want one that was this independent and thorough.

After Goldberg insisted that he was, in fact, operating within the scope of the task he was assigned, Fernandez allegedly repeated: "Dollars in pockets is all that matters."

If Fernandez said that, he's dead wrong. You don't need cash to change hands to prove there's impropriety. A public official simply isn't allowed to trade public policy for private favors. And Goldberg's charge was to find out whether Cobo had violated not just those state regulations governing the conduct of public officials but the guidelines specific to hospital commissioners, which are outlined in the district's charter. Ultimately, Goldberg's investigation concluded that Cobo probably violated both state law and the board's ethical code.

Among the specific allegations Cobo had been accused of helping Las Olas Lifestyle magazine get an advertising deal from the district, in exchange for which Cobo was personally celebrated as a local "Icon."  We described this part of the investigation in more detail, here.

Based on Goldberg's notes, it's evident that a "liaison" for the magazine's publisher, Jim Norton, had phoned Fernandez after Goldberg had contacted the magazine and offered to perform a "forensic computer inquiry" that might shed more light on the dealings between Cobo and Norton. Fernandez allegedly told Goldberg: "You can't treat a vendor (Las Olas Lifestyle) like that for a bullshit allegation."

That's right. The guy whose board hired the investigator to look into allegations, has already decided one of them is "bullshit."

If Goldberg had trouble getting the cooperation of the magazine's publisher, maybe Fernandez knows something about that. "I told him to tell you to go fuck yourself," the chairman allegedly said to Goldberg in their meeting.

With that, it was Goldberg's turn to get angry. "Obstruction!" he yelled, according to his notes. And as a former federal prosecutor, Goldberg knows the legal standards for that crime.

Just maybe Fernandez realized he was placing his own head inside a legal noose, as the notes reflect that he then let Goldberg explain why the Las Olas Lifestyle episode was a potential violation of the district's charter. But Fernandez still didn't get it. Goldberg quotes him saying: "If you have a charter violation why pursue further. Need to stop."

Then he allegedly told Goldberg that he "only wants one violation and that is enough." Yep, that's your public health care chairman treating his independent investigator like the man behind a deli counter.

Why did this investigation need to stop, you may be wondering? In the next line Goldberg writes, "Pressure from Cobo, (Fernandez) says, for it to end." Amazing. We're allowing the target of the investigation to dictate its termination?

Let's note, too, that on April 29 when this meeting took place, Goldberg had been investigating for just over a month. In this was not a modest undertaking. He had been assigned to investigate 12 separate allegations of misconduct, each of which required the retrieving of documents and the interviewing of witnesses. Goldberg's notes indicate he was working quickly, having already interviewed over 20 people.

That may have been the problem. Judging by the notes, Goldberg realized he'd been conducting a thorough investigation for an entity that didn't want one. He threatened to quit.

But that wouldn't look very good for the chairman who -- as you can see here -- claims to value "transparency." If not the real thing then at least the appearance of it. Fernandez allegedly said he had "no choice" but to let Goldberg finish the report. But he'd make that virtually impossible by insisting that Goldberg submit the report on May 7 -- giving Goldberg just over a week to wrap it up.

The attorney insisted that if this was the condition, then he'd make it clear that the report was incomplete by using the words "as of May 7" in the title, which he ultimately did.

Goldberg's parting shot: "Told him I simply cannot believe how ill-informed and advised he is. Remarkable."

But his last line is even more cryptic. In exchange that apparently followed the meeting with Fernandez, Broward Health CEO Frank Nask -- who was present at that meeting -- allegedly told Goldberg that "Joe (Cobo) is a problem and needs to resign" and that "Fernandez agrees with that." If so, Fernandez has a funny way of showing it.

As ordered, Goldberg submitted his report on May 7, after which the board and district management had to decide how on a course of action for Cobo. The board invited the public to give their input at the May 27 meeting in which it announced its decision. Cobo plucked a veritable bouquet of Broward dignitaries to testify on his behalf.

The emails included in Goldberg's file show that Fernandez specifically told the investigator not to attend the meeting. So Goldberg was not there when a parade of Cobo character witnesses pilloried Goldberg, accusing him of being an errand boy of one of the honorable commissioner's political enemies. None of them had evidence that Goldberg's report was corrupted. Rather, the single charge that seemed to have a shred of merit was that Goldberg issued his report without having interviewed all of the witnesses.

As we noted at the time, none of the commissioners -- least of all Fernandez -- bothered to tell the angry mob why the report was incomplete. Namely, because that's apparently how Fernandez ordered it. When furious defenders of Cobo called Goldberg cowardly for not attending the meeting, the chair neglected to mention he told the attorney not to come.

Given Goldberg's treatment by the hospital district, you can't help but wonder why any truly independent investigator would ever involve himself with these commissioners. Until in the next moment you reach the inescapable conclusion that that's exactly how the commissioners -- or Fernandez, at least -- want it.

In the Sun-Sentinel, Fernandez claimed that his efforts to end the investigation were driven by concerns about its cost.

"What I wanted to see end was his endless billing," Fernandez said. "I wanted to see what he had, and that's why I gave him a date."

Funny how that topic never came up during his meeting with Goldberg. And it's worth noting that at the outset, the board didn't put a dollar-figure cap on the investigation -- no legitimate investigation could have one. Even if it had, Fernandez had no clue how much the investigation was costing when he demanded it be terminated -- Goldberg had not yet given the board the bill.

Cobo, who denied putting pressure on Goldberg to the investigation, had an even more hilarious quote:

"I think the pressure was they were getting sick and tired of all the time he was taking. It's like signing a blank check," Cobo said.
"All the time"?!? This investigator had been working for five weeks when he was told to shut it down.

Fernandez and Cobo were both appointed to the commission by Gov. Charlie Crist, so interested local health care stakeholders can send thank you letters to his office.

* Re-reading this post, I should clarify one point. In requesting my interview with Fernandez, I told him of my interest in discussing the status of acting general counsel Sam Goren, who disclosed conflicts of interest with respect to the hospital district when he was interviewed by Goldberg in December, but not when he was offered the general counsel's job in mid-May, for this post two weeks ago. Whether Goren disclosed conflicts to the commissioners would appear to have little if anything to do with the investigation into Cobo's ethics, which is why I was hopeful about getting an interview. I didn't, and the pending Cobo investigation is the reason Fernandez gave. So I remain perplexed how he could then justify discussing behind-scenes details about how the board handled of the Cobo investigation with the Sun-Sentinel. Clearly, that interview posed much greater risk of affecting the State Attorney's pending criminal investigation.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Francis