A public meeting called to discuss whether the North Broward Hospital District’s top lawyer deliberately obstructed an FBI investigation was shut down shortly after it began Wednesday on her advice.
The allegations against general counsel Lynn Barrett will now be discussed in the future behind closed doors. The move to hold the meeting in private was made over the vigorous objections of two North Broward commissioners and the Sun-Sentinel.
“I totally disagree that we can go into the shade for something like this. I don’t think its good public policy,” said Commissioner Chair David Di Pietro, an attorney.
Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board Editor Rosemary O’Hara told the commission that she had consulted with the newspaper’s attorney and was told that a private meeting on the allegations is “not allowed under the law.”
Most government meetings in Florida must be held in public under the state Sunshine Law.
Barrett ruled that the meeting could be held in private because it involved possible legal action as a result of the investigation. The Sunshine Law has an exception for discussions of pending litigation.
The vote of the North Board commission was 5-2 to close the meeting. Voting to hold the meeting outside public view were Commissioners Joel K. Gustafson, Rocky Rodriguez, Maureen Canada, Sheela VanHoose and Christopher T. Ure, who attended via telephone. Chairman Di Pietro and Commissioner Darryl L. Wright voted to keep the meeting in the Sunshine.
Commissioners are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to oversee the $1.2 billion public health system that includes four hospitals and numerous clinics.
The decision was made after an hour-long debate on whether the discussion of Barrett’s alleged actions would jeopardize an ongoing FBI investigation.
Law enforcement says don’t talk
Broward Health security director and ethics officer Carlos Perez-Irizarry, a former federal prosecutor, told commissioners that unspecified law enforcement officials have asked Broward Health not to discuss the probe.
“We have been asked not to disclose the extent and content of what we’ve been asked to do,” Perez-Irizzary said.
The allegations against Barrett came from noted Miami investigator Wayne Black, who was hired by the late North Broward chief executive Nabil El-Sanadi to uncover corruption at the health care system.
In an e-mail sent to the Commission last week, Black accused Barrett of hindering the FBI investigation by refusing to turn over evidence, including the laptop computer of a Broward Health executive under suspicion of wrongdoing. Broward Health is the district’s brand name.
Barrett didn’t talk about the accusations against her. “So how does one respond to allegations when one can’t confirm” to others that there is an FBI investigation, she said.
Instead, she told the commissioners that the meeting should take place with the public excluded so that any investigation not be jeopardized.
Di Pietro, a lawyer who was once a state prosecutor, clearly was upset with Barrett’s advice, which served to keep the discussion about her conduct private. He said holding the meeting out of the Sunshine was “inappropriate” for a public agency and added, “I don’t want my name attached to it.”
Still, neither Di Pietro nor any other commissioner suggested it was a conflict of interest to close the meeting on the advice of Barrett, whose actions would be a subject of that same meeting.
At one point Di Pietro and lawyer Barrett got into a heated exchange, with Di Pietro insisting that he was never notified by Broward Health’s administration that the investigation was taking place.
“Show me on document, one piece of paper” that would show he was notified, he asked Barrett. She replied that he had heard about it in a discussion in a parking lot.
No date was set for the private board meeting to discuss the investigation.