Broward News

Were Hospital Attorneys Fired for Sake of Cover-Up?

For the past month, the North Broward Hospital District has been wrestling with two seemingly unrelated scandals: the corruption investigation of Commissioner Joseph Cobo and the sudden firing of the district's general counsel, Marc Goldstone, and his lieutenant, Joe Truhe.

But it seems inevitable that these two stories will merge. The Cobo case, which jumped to the criminal courts last week, has been overshadowing the general counsel situation, so much so that no one has really bothered to ask whether the board was justified in firing Goldstone and Truhe on May 15.

Or at least, no one besides Goldstone's attorney and Truhe himself, who on June 1 sent a letter to commissioners in which he questioned whether his and Goldstone's ousters were politically driven.

Even before Truhe's letter, Juice had filed public records requests with the district, looking for evidence that could be used to rule out the possibility of a cover-up. But the district hasn't made all of those public records available. Juice has also requested interviews with district officials who could shed light on this subject, but they have not responded.

So we'll try to address this question with what we do know. The first consideration is whether the board had legit grounds for firing Goldstone and Truhe.

To review, the commissioners claimed to have been misled by Goldstone as to his qualifications to be the district's general counsel. The Florida Bar Association did not allow for "authorized house counsel" as an exemption for an attorney like Goldstone, who had moved here from Tennessee and, thus, was not licensed to practice law in Florida. Commissioners claimed that Goldstone knew this but concealed it from them in hopes of keeping his job.

But Goldstone's attorney, Bill Amlong, says that although his client was initially unaware of his ineligibility for authorized house counsel status, neither did the hospital district know this when it hired him. In fact, he says, the district's chief human resources officer, Dionne Wong, who is a member of the Florida Bar, signed off on Goldstone's application to be certified as authorized house counsel. And even if Wong didn't know that this route wasn't available to Goldstone, then Spencer Levine should certainly have known. Then the chief operating officer, he was in the room for Goldstone's interview. He's also a member of the Florida Bar, and if there were any doubts about his legal expertise, he probably wouldn't have been appointed in April to be a Fourth District Court of Appeals judge.

So at the very least, it seems the district bears some responsibility for failing to advise Goldstone in the legal nuances of practicing as general counsel for a public hospital district in Florida.

Then it boils down to the question of intent. Based on its actions and statements in meetings, the commissioners seemed to believe that their own officials committed an accidental oversight but that Goldstone was deliberate in covering up his lack of qualifications.

But again, the available evidence points in another direction. Amlong claims that in a March meeting of the Legal Review Committee, Goldstone explained to the commissioners how he would not be applying for authorized house counsel but that he and Truhe would be taking the Florida Bar exam at the soonest possible date, in July, and that after all, this would take roughly as long as was expected for approval of his application for authorized house counsel.

In a brief interview with Juice, Truhe confirmed this account. The minutes of that meeting show that Goldstone told the board of his plan "to have all non-Florida licensed hires apply for and sit for the Florida Bar" -- a category that included him and Truhe.

That seems to be the only other option if Goldstone couldn't gain authorized house counsel status. After all, a hospital district that's among the biggest in the nation should be able to conduct a national search for a position as important as general counsel.

"My sense is that the majority of the top people in this very specialized area are not members of the Florida Bar," says Amlong. So there must be some means for allowing an attorney from outside Florida to assume that position and perform the largely administrative tasks that come with it.

The leading authority on that question may be the chair of the Florida Bar's Health Law section, Jacksonville attorney Jeanne Helton. But for two weeks, Helton has ducked Juice's efforts to get clarification on these questions, perhaps because she expects to be called to give those clarifications under oath in a future civil suit. Amlong stopped short of guaranteeing he'd be filing one on Goldstone's behalf, but it's evident that he's exploring the option. He told Juice that the commissioners' explanations for terminating Goldstone are "disingenuous."

At the time Goldstone and Truhe were fired, they were considering the question of how to advise the board on dealing with the recently released investigative findings that suggested Commissioner Cobo violated ethical rules. Juice asked Amlong whether the one was related to the other.

"You think?" answered Amlong, sarcastically.

As records and interviews become available we'll have updates on this.

UPDATE: Sara Howley, a spokesperson for Broward Health, just sent an email response to questions posed to acting general counsel Sam Goren. She cites concerns about potential litigation as the reason for not offering more expansive answers to the questions, saying only that Goren believed his advice to the commission on the Cobo matter to be "appropriate" and that he "was not influenced" by internal politics, a possibility that Truhe suggested in his letter to the commission.

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Thomas Francis