By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Whistleblower lawsuits filed separately by Broward Health’s deposed CEO and chairman are adding fresh details about the corruption scandal that’s engulfed the taxpayer-backed hospital system.
The latest case, filed in Broward Circuit Court Dec. 8, accuses Broward Health, through General Counsel Lynn Barrett, of firing former CEO Pauline Grant on Dec. 1, 2016 “in retaliation for actions she took in an attempt to investigate and remedy misfeasance and malfeasance within the public agency.”
News of Grant’s lawsuit follows last week’s sweeping indictment of four current and former Broward Heath commissioners and its general counsel for violations of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. The charges are second-degree misdemeanors, and the accused are to be arraigned together on Jan. 22.
Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to remove each of the accused, but has so far chosen not to do so. Unless removed, the five are scheduled to appear Wednesday at 4 p.m. for a regular board meeting at Broward Health’s headquarters at Spectrum Office Park, 1700 NW 49th St. Unit 150, Fort Lauderdale.
Also still unfolding is Broward Health Commission Chairman David Di Pietro’s politically explosive whistleblower complaint, first reported by Florida Bulldog in September. In an amended complaint, Di Pietro has included more information about alleged political influence and bribery.
The 25-year, no bid deal
The intrigue involves the ultimately successful effort of Fort Myers-based 21st Century Oncology – a large anti-cancer company financially tied to Gov. Scott – to obtain an exclusive 25-year, non-bid contract to provide lucrative radiation oncology services at Broward Health.
In his original complaint, Di Pietro said 21st Century lobbyist William “Billy” Rubin, a confidant of Gov. Scott, bribed then-CEO Frank Nask to support the deal with kickbacks of financial and job security and the governor’s political protection. The governor appoints Broward Health’s commissioners, who hire the CEO. At the time, Nask’s salary was $680,000, plus performance bonuses and benefits.
A copy of Di Pietro’s amended complaint was filed Nov. 22 in 21st Century’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case in New York City, where Di Pietro seeks to avoid having his potential fraud claim discharged. It has not yet been filed in the pending whistleblower case in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Among other things, the suit contends that 21st Century and its former CEO Dr. Daniel Dosoretz illegally schemed as early as 2006 to take over radiation oncology services at Broward Health.
It says that back then, Dosoretz promised then-CEO Alan Levine that in return for accepting 21st Century’s proposal, the company’s doctors would refer high volumes of patients to Broward Health for surgeries, admissions and other services. It is illegal under federal law to offer or make referrals of Medicare patients in return for anything of value.
A year later, 21st Century directly approached Broward Health’s board members. Former board member Robert Bernstein has told Di Pietro’s lawyers that Dosoretz offered him “the opportunity to manage surgery centers in Jacksonville” in exchange for his support.
A congressman calls
“Bernstein also received a call from former U.S. Representative Connie Mack IV regarding 21st Century, which he declined to accept. Despite this pressure, Bernstein declined 21st Century’s attempted bribe and refused to present the contract to the full board,” the complaint says.
Dosoretz and Nask are both added as defendants in the amended complaint.
Pauline Grant’s whistleblower case picks up where last week’s indictment leaves off, recounting the allegedly secret meetings that some board members attended with general counsel Barrett and other lawyers in advance of Grant’s termination last year.
The board voted unanimously to hire Grant as CEO in March 2016. In May, an anonymous email was received which questioned actions being taken by Barrett’s office and the qualifications and scope of work of lawyer Scott Newton and his Tennessee firm, Baker Donelson, previously retained by Broward Health as its Independent Review Organization. The IRO was required under the terms of the Corporate Integrity Agreement signed by the district as part of its $70-million settlement of Medicare and Medicaid fraud charges in 2015.
The complaint says Grant attempted to begin an internal investigation and was told by a federal overseer that it would have to be performed by independent, outside investigators. Grant had interviewed “several law firms” when she advised the board in May 2016. Then, her suit says, things began to fall apart as Barrett “began a systematic effort to discredit Ms. Grant and remove her.”
Grant was fired the following December after law firms retained by Barrett – firms Florida Bulldog has reported had deep, undisclosed ties to Gov. Scott – investigated a complaint against Grant and concluded she’d violated the federal anti-kickback law. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Steve Silberfarb complained he was treated unfairly by a hospital orthopedic trauma call panel when it came to getting patient referrals. Grant denied any wrongdoing, but the attorneys said they didn’t believe her.
Grant and Broward Health have traded claims and counterclaims in several lawsuits filed subsequent to her dismissal. But one month before Grant’s whistleblower suit was filed, on Nov 3, 2017, IRO attorney Scott Newton wrote a lengthy letter to Florida Chief Inspector General (IG) Eric Miller attacking Grant and asserting that Grant and others had created “an apparently false operational narrative” reflecting their “absolute resistance to cultural change” at the long-troubled district.
The IG’s office has since early 2016 been reviewing recent contracts at Broward Health.
Grant’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Gene Pettis, sent his eight-page response to the IG about Newton’s “one-sided report” on Dec. 12.
“The timing of Mr. Newton’s public report attacking Ms. Grant and others who support her strongly suggests an improper attempt to influence [the Broward grand jury] proceedings or intimidate witnesses who might otherwise come forward,” Pettis wrote. “Mr. Newton is pursuing, at taxpayer expense, what appears to be no more than a personal vendetta by Ms. Barrett against Pauline Grant.”
The North Broward Hospital District, Broward Health’s legal name, has 20 days to respond to Grant’s whistleblower complaint.