Puppet Master at Hospital District: George LeMieux

Long before George LeMieux was selected by Charlie Crist to be the state's newest U.S. Senator, he was the most powerful figure in the North Broward Hospital District.

An episode from this past March illustrates LeMieux's godfather-like role. That month Marc Goldstone was still the general counsel of the North Broward Hospital District. He found himself in an awkard political position.

On one hand, his job called for him to be certain that the district made smart legal decisions -- and the district's willingness to participate in a class action suit against bond rating agencies failed that standard. There are only so many bond rating agencies, and a $1 billion public hospital district may not want to antagonize them, lest those agencies be inclined to give Broward Health's bonds a low rating. Or maybe Goldstone just thought there was no way to win the class action suit. Whatever it was, he wanted to get the district out of this legal loser.

On the other hand, he may have recognized that the district's participation in the suit had been brokered through Commissioner Joseph Cobo, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. In addition, he may have known that the attorneys who stood to profit from the suit belonged to the firm of a major Crist fundraiser: Scott Rothstein.

What's more, Goldstone knew that Rothstein had been selected by Crist to seve on the nominating committee for the 4th District Court of Appeal, an appointment for which Broward Health COO Spencer Levine was being considered. Levine has a friendship with both Crist and LeMieux.

Sources with knowledge of this predicament say that before Goldstone moved to sever the district's ties with the suit, he consulted the one person who could tell him whether it would cost him his job: LeMieux.

Technically, Gov. Charlie Crist has the authority to appoint commissioners to public hospital districts, but when it comes to Broward Health, George LeMieux is happy to help. After all, LeMieux is a Broward native.

Mind you, at this time LeMieux was no longer Crist's chief of staff. Rather, LeMieux had moved to the private sector as chairman of the ultra-powerful law firm Gunster Yoakley. According to the source, LeMieux gave his blessing to the decision to ditch the class action suit.

The same sequence of events occurred when Goldstone and his associate general counsel Joe Truhe recognized that they could cut billings to Gray-Robinson, a powerful statewide firm with deep roots in the Florida Republican Party. If Goldstone tried to save the district money at Gray-Robinson's expense, would it cost Goldstone his job? According to the source, LeMieux again gave his blessing.

Says another source, speaking on condition of anonymity: "George LeMieux runs the hospital district -- he has his hands in everything."
LeMieux, of course, is currently enjoying a seat in the U.S. Senate, courtesy the appointment bestowed on him by Crist this past August. But sources indicate he still keeps a vigil on hospital district business and that those who have earned LeMieux's good graces are made men (and women), so to speak -- protected against being fired.

When LeMieux picked his Washington D.C. staff he plucked Commissioner Maureen Jaeger off the hospital board.

Clearly, had LeMieux effectively vetoed the Gray-Robinson bill trimmings and the termination of the class action suit, it might be more cause for concern. But all the same, it's surreal -- and troubling -- that executives and commissioners felt inclined to seek permission from a lobbyist in performing their duties for a public entity.

Here's a question for your government ethics buffs: If LeMieux really had this much power at the hospital district, based on his former position as Crist's chief of staff, would it be appropriate for him and / or his firm to be representing doctors and vendors who were looking to negotiate lucrative contracts with that district, which relies partly on your taxes?

LeMieux's press secretary did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this article.

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