By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org
A Broward grand jury began hearing testimony Wednesday about alleged criminal conduct at long-troubled Broward Health, the taxpayer-supported public medical system for the northern two-thirds of the county.
A panel of 18 grand jurors were on hand to examine potential criminal violations of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and state ethics laws by the seven-member commission appointed by Gov. Rick Scott that runs the health-care agency.
The grand jury may also take a broader look at Broward Health, which has been buffeted by allegations of mismanagement and insider dealing for years. Grand jurors have the power to recommend changes in the system’s governance and have done so with various governments in the past.
“I decided our office should focus on possible Sunshine Law violations and related matters that had come to our attention,” said Broward State Attorney Michael Satz.
Office spokesman Ron Ishoy indicated that grand jury testimony would reach into many areas of the public health-care system.
“We are in the midst of a wide-ranging investigation,” he said.
News of the county grand jury’s probe comes amid an ongoing federal grand jury’s look at suspicious purchasing practices at Broward Health. Florida Bulldog reported in February 2016 that the federal grand jury has subpoenaed Broward Health’s records about former procurement officer Brian Bravo and 16 companies, including MedAssets, a publicly traded, Georgia-based group purchasing organization.
Satz was reluctant to convene a grand jury on Broward Health last year because he felt that it might duplicate or get in the way of the federal investigation. On Tuesday, he indicated that was no longer an issue. “There continues to be good cooperation between the investigative agencies involved and no overlap,” Satz said.
Grand jury proceedings, both federal and state, are secret. Wednesday morning, however, subpoenaed witnesses began showing up outside the grand jury’s new home — Courtroom 10175 on the 10th floor of the new Broward County Courthouse Tower.
The kickoff witnesses were Broward Health’s former general counsel Sam Goren and ex-board chairman David Di Pietro. Goren, accompanied by his colleague attorney Jacob Horowitz, testified for an hour and 15 minutes. Di Pietro testified for nearly two and a half hours. Neither man would discuss his testimony nor disclose what matters he was asked about.
Appearing to testify in the afternoon were Pam Hatfield, senior executive secretary to Broward Health’s president/CEO, and former Broward Health Commissioner Maureen Canada.
Investigators led by Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly, chief of the office’s Public Corruption/Special Investigations unit, brought nine boxes of documents with them to the grand jury room. Accompanying Donnelly at yesterday’s proceedings were prosecutors Whitney MacKay and Chris Killoran.
Broward Health is an independent special district whose legal name is the North Broward Hospital District. It operates four hospitals, including its flagship Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, and additional urgent care and outpatient centers.
The governor appoints a board of commissioners that runs the district and levies property taxes to help support its mission, which includes providing treatment for indigent patients. The board has seven seats, but two are currently unfilled. All five commissioners are Republicans appointed by Gov. Scott.
Di Pietro blows whistle
Di Pietro filed a federal whistleblower suit last year shortly after he quit the board. The lawsuit was unsealed late last week, and Florida Bulldog reported Monday that it contains a number of politically explosive allegations about insider influence, including kickbacks and “hush money” payments at Broward Health that reach up to the governor himself.
Prosecutors have fielded numerous complaints about the governance of the public-health system during the past 18 months. At least two of the complaints involve the controversy swirling around the hiring of Interim President/CEO Beverly Capasso.
One complaint alleges Capasso, who was a Broward Health commissioner at the time, violated Florida ethics laws when she voted to give herself her current job. Florida law on voting conflict states that “no county, municipal, or other local public officer shall vote in an official capacity upon any measure which would inure to his or her special private gain or loss.”
The CEO job pays Capasso $650,000 annually. A search for a permanent chief executive is underway.
Another allegation is that board members discussed hiring Capasso in private, thus breaking the Sunshine Law, which requires most public matters to be discussed in the open.
An abrupt hiring
She was hired suddenly as CEO during a May 8 Broward Health Commission meeting. Before the vote, fellow board members did little questioning of her background, her health care experience or how she would approach the job. Because of the lack of meaningful debate at the meeting when Capasso was hired, the move appeared preplanned.
After her hiring, information about Capasso’s background surfaced that was never publicly discussed before she was hired. The Sun-Sentinel reported that Capasso held a master’s degree from an unaccredited mail and online university that a federal investigator called a diploma mill during congressional testimony.
Gov. Scott appointed Capasso, a registered nurse whose experience included a stint as chief executive of Jackson Memorial Hospital, to Broward Health’s board in October 2016.
Another complaint filed with the State Attorney’s Office alleges that Broward Health Commissioner Christopher Ure used his position to get an investigator to threaten his mistress.
“I filed the complaint and went in to talk to Tim Donnelly about it. Donnelly told me they were going to hold a Grand Jury concerning Broward Health” but gave no timetable, community activist and blogger Dan Lewis said.
Lewis outlined his allegations in an Aug. 21 post on his Broward Health Blog.
“Christopher Ure and Jane Doe met online late in 2015. He used ‘Guy Weston’ and ‘WestonGuy954@gmail.com’ as his online profile (clever, he lives in Weston and he’s a ‘guy’). He also used an anonymous Google voice number 770-580-4009 to keep his communications secret,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis posted pictures that Ure allegedly texted the woman, including one he described as taken outside his daughter’s school play.
Late last year, Ure and the woman had a falling out. She felt she was jilted and tried to contact Ure’s wife and Ure’s minister, Lewis wrote. Then one day she received a call from a private investigator trying to warn her off.
“As you know, um, our friend has a very important job and I, uh, look out after these guys so you can look it up,” the investigator said in a message that was recorded and given to Lewis.
The investigator worked for a law firm that in the past had sued Broward Health for malpractice.
Lewis complained to the State Attorney’s Office that Ure received “a favor” because he was a Broward Health commissioner involved in a lawsuit with the investigator’s employer. If proved, such a favor would constitute unlawful misuse of public office.
Ure did not return phone messages requesting comment.
Tools for change
Grand jury reports can be powerful tools for change, but their success has been mixed in Broward.
In 2009, grand jurors recommended tougher regulation of pain clinics that had proliferated in Broward, where 33 of the nation’s 50 leading dispensing physicians of Oxycodone were then located. The report helped bolster the argument that stricter laws were needed, and Tallahassee acted.
Repeated examinations of the Broward schools construction practices by local and state grand jurors failed to produce the same results.
In 1997, the grand jury blasted the Broward public schools for shoddy construction and overspending. But as a 2002 grand jury report noted, it changed nothing.
A 2015 report from the State Attorney’s Office again slammed the School Board for not following earlier grand jury recommendations, including those by a statewide grand jury.