New York boots Armor Correctional; In Florida, Armor boss named to powerful commission

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Dr. Jose Armas, owner and president of Armor Correctional Health Services, right, and Gov. Rick Scott

The company that provides health-care services to thousands of jail inmates across Florida, including Broward and Palm Beach counties, has been kicked out of New York for allegedly “placing inmates’ health in jeopardy.”

Armor Correctional Health Services paid $350,000 in penalties and agreed not to bid on or enter into any contract to provide jail health services in New York state for three years, settling formal charges brought in July 2016 by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The lawsuit was filed after a dozen inmates died since Armor was hired, including five found to have received inadequate medical care, Schneiderman’s office said.

“For-profit jail providers must ensure that appropriate medical care is provided in jails, where many inmates suffer from complex medical needs,” Schneiderman said when the settlement was announced in October. “This settlement sends a clear message that companies who fail to provide the required health services to inmates won’t be tolerated in New York State.” Armor Correctional provided comprehensive medical services to the Nassau County Correctional Center.

Five months later, however, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Armor Correctional founder and president Dr. Jose “Pepe” Armas to a coveted seat on the powerful Constitution Revision Commission that will recommend changes next year to the Florida Constitution.

Armas and companies he controls have contributed nearly $300,000 to Scott’s election campaigns, his Let’s Get to Work political committees and to the Republican Party of Florida.

“Armas is a distinguished physician and healthcare executive whose focus on patient-centered care has defined his career,” Gov. Scott’s office said in announcing his appointment to the commission in March.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

A spokeswoman for Armas at Miami’s EvClay Public Relations sought to downplay Armor Correctional’s New York troubles, saying the company had made a “business decision” to pull out of New York three years before the settlement. Similarly, she described Armas as “solely” an investor in Armor and “not involved in its daily operations.”

Florida corporate records, however, have for years listed Armas as Armor’s president. And the company’s federal income tax returns from 2009 through 2013 state that Armas owned 100 percent of Armor. They also show that in 2012-2013 Armor paid Armas $9.6 million in dividends.

What happened in New York wasn’t the first time an Armas-led company has been in trouble.

In 2013, Armas’s MCCI Group Holdings LLC paid $1.6 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act alleging that MCCI had violated the federal Anti-Kickback Statute and the Anti-Inducement Act. MCCI denied the allegations, but also paid another $300,000 in attorney fees to the whistleblower’s attorney.

“MCCI reached a settlement to avoid the delay, inconveniences and expense of litigation,” said Armas spokeswoman Melisa Chantres.

At the time, MCCI owned and operated medical clinics in Miami-Dade and contracted with Humana, which was also named in the qui tam suit, to provide care, including prescription drugs, to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Miami, did not allege any wrongdoing by Armas himself, but contended that MCCI broke the law “by providing to its current and potential Medicare beneficiaries free services and gifts, such as transportation, meals, beauty and salon services, massages and entertainment,” according to the settlement agreement. The illegal activities allegedly took place between 2000 and 2012.

Scott’s Medicare fraud case

Long before Scott became governor in 2011, he was the founder and CEO of health-care titan Columbia/HCA and at the center of a much larger Medicare fraud case. Scott quit Columbia/HCA amid an FBI probe in 1997, and the company he built later paid a record $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines.

MCCI was named in another South Florida whistleblower case filed by Dr. Mario M. Baez in 2012 and made public last year. Baez accused MCCI, Humana and several Palm Beach County physicians of “upcoding,” a fraudulent billing scheme in which health-care providers charge Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance payers for more expensive services than were performed.

Last month, the U.S. formally intervened in the case to recover damages against only one of those defendants, Dr. Isaac Kojo Anakwah Thompson, and not against MCCI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine did not explain in court papers why the government declined to intervene against MCCI or Humana. Thompson, Baez’s former partner, was sentenced to 46 months’ imprisonment in July 2016 after pleading guilty to health-care fraud.

Baez could have filed an amended False Claims Act complaint to proceed against MCCI in the name of the United States, but did not do so. MCCI spokeswoman Chantres said the company was never served legal notice of the lawsuit and called Baez “a complete stranger to MCCI.”

Fort Lauderdale attorneys Christina Currie and Greg Lauer

In Broward, Armas’ Armor Correctional, its doctors and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit in the death of William Herring Jr., 22, a mentally ill inmate who starved to death in December 2012 while allegedly being deprived of treatment.

The lawsuit filed last December by Fort Lauderdale attorneys Greg Lauer and Christina Currie notes that Armor was being paid $25 million a year by the sheriff’s office to provide comprehensive health care to county inmates.

“However instead of holding true to its promise Armor chose to maximize profits. Armor knew that the result of putting profits before patients would be that some inmates with serious medical conditions would not get the care that they were entitled to,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint goes on to identify five other Broward inmates who it says died “slow, horrible and preventable deaths in the same jail” from 2011-2012 because of Armor’s decision to maximize profits. The five are identified as: William Campbell, arrested for DUI; Gary Joseph Smith, arrested for possession of cocaine; Calvin Goldsmith, arrested for trespassing; Raleigh Priester, arrested for throwing a rock at a city employee; Arthur Sacco, arrested for an unspecified misdemeanor.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein’s office represents many inmates under Armor’s care. He said what he’s observed about Armor is disturbing.

“If you have a family member who is in jail and their life depends on Armor for medical treatment, you’re in trouble,” Finkelstein said. “The name of the game with Armor is to withhold treatment until the inmate is released, sent to prison and it becomes someone else’s treatment, or dies.”

Chantres said Armor does not comment on pending legal matters, but noted the company “strives to deliver excellent patient care daily.”

Pipeline company with tie to Gov. Scott, and state backing, has history of accidents

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy, the company that state environmental regulators say should be allowed to construct a 267-mile-long natural gas pipeline in North Florida, has a checkered history of accidents and violations of federal safety rules in the U.S. and Canada dating back decades.

FloridaBulldog.org reported last week that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is backing the award of a key environmental permit for the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline to a joint venture majority-owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.

Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott. On last year’s financial disclosure form, Scott reported owning a $108,000 stake in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. His latest disclosure form, filed in June, no longer details Scott’s securities holdings because he put those assets into a blind trust.

The underground Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a nearly 500-mile interstate natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama, through Georgia south to Orange County, south of Orlando. Spectra owns 59.5 percent; Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy owns 33 percent; and Duke Energy, which spun off its natural gas business to form Spectra in 2007, recently paid $225 million for a 7.5 percent stake.

Federal and state election records show that FP&L, Duke Energy and their affiliates together have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan. They also gave a total of $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Spectra Energy operates approximately 22,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in North America. U.S. and Canadian agency files detail the company’s problematic safety record.

From 2006 to date, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line – the 9,000-mile Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast. The causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines – not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications.

Spectra’s press office did not respond to detailed requests for comment made over two days.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its July 10 notice of intent to issue the permit and easement for Sabal Trail without a public hearing. The WWALS Watershed Coalition, a Georgia based nonprofit and environmental advocate, filed an objection to the permit last week and the department is considering its response.

Was Spectra’s safety record considered in DEP’s decision?

“The department assesses a permit application based on Florida statutes and rules to ensure that all aspects of the proposed operation follow Florida law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety,” DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said in a Wednesday statement.

A DRAMATIC RUPTURE

Spectra’s most recent pipeline accident was the dramatic rupture of an auxiliary pipe along its Texas Eastern Pipeline in Little Rock, Ark. on May 31. The buried line, which crossed the Arkansas River near the Clinton Presidential Center, was not in use at the time, but contained four million cubic feet of natural gas that exploded with such force that churning water boiled up high into the air across the span of the river. Eyewitness Tony Cassady, who lives nearby, said the gushing waters had settled back somewhat by the time he managed to snap the photo above.

While no one was injured, the blow out resulted in more than $1 million in damages, according to federal records. The cause has not been determined, but an incident report filed by Spectra in June noted that high rains had caused flooding that had washed away soil that once covered the pipeline on the river’s bank.

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy's Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy’s Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Another vivid example of the power of out-of-control natural gas occurred June 28, 2012 at the Nig Creek pipeline in British Columbia, operated by Spectra’s wholly owned subsidiary Westcoast Energy. The 16-inch pipeline, which had been shut down that night, was filled with pressurized “sour gas” that exploded when the line ruptured, causing a fire and creating a large crater in a remote forest area in British Columbia. Sour gas contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide and is highly toxic.

No one was injured in the blast – the nearest town, population 58, was 25 miles away. The cause was later determined to be a crack in a pipe.

So far in 2015, Canada’s National Energy Board has fined Spectra Energy three times for a total of $122,300 – including $88,000 imposed in January after inspectors found violations with “the potential to significantly impact worker safety and infrastructure” at Spectra’s Dawson Creek Gas Plant, also in British Columbia.

Just last month, the board also ordered Spectra to fix “management system failures” at its Westcoast Energy gas processing plants and facilities in western Canada after inspectors uncovered 27 safety issues between April 1, 2014 and June 26, 2015.

“The board expects Westcoast to address safety concerns on a systemic basis,” says the July 14 safety order. “Based on recent violations described below, the board is not confident safety concerns are being addressed in this manner.”

Back in the U.S., Spectra owns or co-owns eight natural gas pipelines, including the 745-mile Gulfstream Natural Gas, which runs beneath the Gulf of Mexico from lower Mississippi and Alabama to Tampa Bay. All but two of those pipelines – Gulfstream and the 67-mile Big Sandy pipeline in eastern Kentucky – have reported at least one incident since 2006.

Spectra Energy's pipelines

Spectra Energy’s pipelines

In 2014, the U.S. pipeline administration investigated a frightening episode in Searsmont, Maine involving the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra, Emera and ExxonMobil. The 684-mile pipeline transports natural gas from offshore Nova Scotia to markets in the northeast U.S.

The event happened at a pipeline compressor station, which helps move gas through a pipeline by keeping it under sufficient pressure, shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013. Neighbors told a Bangor Daily News reporter they heard a roaring noise that was so loud it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents to flee.

“TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE”

“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Susan Totman told the newspaper.

Federal pipeline regulators said the noise, which lasted more than a half-hour, was caused by the release of gas jetting from a valve in an emergency shutdown system that was unintentionally opened. About 70 million cubic yards of gas were released, says an agency report on the incident.

The pipeline operator was later found to have violated federal regulations by failing to timely inform them of the accident. Last month, on July 24, regulators imposed a $34,500 fine that company officials did not contest.

Other Spectra pipelines have had problems, too.

Agency records list three incidents in 2010 involving equipment failure and excavation damage along Spectra’s East Tennessee pipeline that caused $238,000 in property damage. In 2013, the company received a warning letter after inspectors found four probable safety violations.

Spectra’s Southeast Supply Header is a 286-mile pipeline that funnels natural gas through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulfstream pipeline and on to Florida. Records show that a construction-related equipment failure near Hazlehurst, Miss. in January 2010 caused $562,000 in property damage and led to $200,000 in safety violation fines.

But Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.

In 1989, Spectra and its Texas Eastern limited partnership paid a $15 million fine and entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination at numerous cites along the pipeline in 14 states.

Texas Eastern had used the banned substance and suspected carcinogen in its compressors as a fire retardant, and over time it had leaked into the pipeline system. The $500 million PCB cleanup cost included the assessment of 462 sites for contamination, installing 707 groundwater monitoring wells and removing and disposing of 600,000 tons of contaminated soil, the EPA said in a 2002 announcement that the cleanup had been completed.

Texas Eastern also paid Pennsylvania $218.6 million in penalties and costs to clean up 19 sites in that state where PCBs were dumped.

In 1994, a buried Texas Eastern pipeline in Edison, N.J. ruptured and ignited “sending flames several hundred feet in the air,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. Heat from the burning gas set fire to an apartment complex more than 100 yards away, destroying several buildings.

Dozens of people were injured and more than 100 families were left homeless, but there were no fatalities. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The probable cause of the rupture: mechanical damage to the pipe that created a crack that metal fatigue caused to grow to critical size.

Gov. Scott, his investments and the ‘temptation to dishonor’

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org pipe

When Gov. Rick Scott set up his first blind trust in April 2011, his lawyers asked Florida’s ethics commission whether he had any conflicts of interest because of his investments in companies doing business in Florida.

Topping their list of concern was Texas-based Energy Transfer Equity – the multi-billion dollar parent of various limited partnerships and subsidiaries engaged in natural gas operations, including pipelines and retail propane sales.

The lawyers wanted a conflict ruling about Energy Transfer’s propane business and its 35 Florida outlets potentially subject to state regulation, not its pipelines. The company and its affiliate, Energy Transfer Partners, had pipeline operations in “Arkansas, Arizona, California and several other states,” but not Florida, the lawyers told the ethics commission.

The commissioners, all political appointees of the governor, the senate president and the house speaker, saw no conflict.

“The (propane) business operation that exists in Florida is a small portion of the entire business activities of the (ultimate) parent organization, which is the organization in which the governor has invested,” said the commission’s May 2011 opinion. “Given the scope of the governor’s investment portfolio” his nearly $600,000 investment in Energy Transfer wasn’t “so proportionately large as to provide a particular “temptation to dishonor.’”

Less than two months later, however, Energy Transfer announced it would acquire Southern Union Company and its 50 percent interest in Citrus Corp., owner of the Florida Gas Transmission (FGT) pipeline. The $9.4 billion deal closed in March 2012.

“FGT is the principal transporter of natural gas to the Florida energy market, delivering 64 percent of the natural gas consumed in the state,” Energy Transfer’s web site says. The pipeline runs from south Texas through the Florida Panhandle and south to Miami-Dade.

Also in 2012, Energy Transfer Partners purchased Sunoco and its pipeline, refining and retail businesses for $5.3 billion.

GOV. SCOTT’S BETS ON ENERGY TRANSFER

Gov. Scott’s most recent financial disclosure form, filed in June, shows that as of Dec. 31 he continued to own a stake in Energy Transfer that he valued at $311,000. Additionally, he owned two other entities in the “Energy Transfer family of partnerships” – Regency Energy Partners and PVR Partners, which Regency acquired in March for $5.6 billion.

The governor valued his Regency stake at $194,000 and his PVR units at $207,000 as of Dec. 31. The total of all three of the governor’s Energy Transfer investments: $712,000.

BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that the governor’s portfolio at the end of 2013 included several million dollars worth of investments in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including several that control Florida’s two main natural gas supply pipelines.

One investment, Spectra Energy, is in a $3 billion joint venture with Florida Power & Light to build Florida’s third large natural gas pipeline, the Sabal Trail Transmission in north Florida. Gov. Scott signed legislation last year to speed up permitting for the project and his appointees on the Public Service Commission approved it last October.

Many of Gov. Scott’s natural gas investments, including Energy Transfer Equity, are publicly traded master limited partnerships. Such partnerships pay no federal or state income taxes and are required to pay out all earnings to their limited partners – investors like Gov. Scott – that aren’t needed for current operations and maintenance. The investors are then taxed on those earnings.

Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from having an ownership interest in companies that do business with the state or are subject to their regulation.

The governor holds his personal investments in a so-called “qualified blind trust” that by a state law the governor signed in 2013 allows public officials to hide their investment activity from the public while giving them immunity from illegal conflicts of interest.

The law seeks to “blind” the governor, a multi-millionaire, to the nature of his many holdings by requiring that he turn over control of his assets to a disinterested trustee. But BrowardBulldog.org has reported that the person overseeing the trust is a former longtime employee of Scott at Richard L. Scott Investments and that federal records show the trust has been ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret.

INVESTMENTS DISCLOSED

Gov. Scott made public his investments last month when he closed his original blind trust, then opened a new one into which he placed his investments.

The governor’s office has declined to explain that maneuver, but it was the first time since 2011 that Scott has released information about his investments.

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott’s 2012 federal income tax forms show the couple claimed a gain of $75,884 that year selling shares of Energy Transfer Equity and its principal subsidiary, Energy Transfer Partners. Total proceeds from those sales: $500,000.

Most of the Scotts’ 2012 gains on Energy Transfer, nearly $48,000, resulted from the sale of Energy Transfer Equity units that the couple reported had cost them nothing. A spokesman for the governor declined to elaborate.

The Scott’s tax returns list the sales of their Energy Transfer units separately from securities sales by the governor’s blind trust that netted about $1.3 million, but are not further identified. That accounting suggests the Energy Transfer units listed on the form were held in Mrs. Scott’s name.

The couple’s tax returns for 2013 have not yet been made public.

Gov. Scott and his staff would not be interviewed about his investments, including Energy Transfer. But a spokesman for his re-election campaign said via email that the governor has “no knowledge” of the contents of his blind trust.

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, number #257 on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the world, is the chairman of both Energy Transfer Equity and Energy Transfer Partners, and chief executive of ETP. He has a reported net worth of $5.8 billion.

Warren is a big political supporter of Gov. Scott. Last November, two days after former Gov. Charlie Crist filed to run against Scott, Warren contributed $50,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee backing Scott.

In March 2012, Energy Transfer subsidiary LaGrange Acquisition LP gave $25,000 to Let’s Get to Work.

Federal election records show that Warren has given more than $500,000 to mostly Republican candidates and causes since 2008.

Medicaid contracts, a close friend, big money and Gov. Scott’s re-election campaign

By Dan Christensen,BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Before the Legislature convenes in Tallahassee next Tuesday, Coral Gables healthcare tycoon Miguel B. “Mike” Fernandez will host a Sunday afternoon BBQ with Gov. Rick Scott, his wife Ann, and key members of the governor’s campaign finance team.

Fernandez, dubbed “Florida’s newest billionaire” last year by Florida Trend, was named finance co-chair for Scott’s campaign in January. In the announcement, the governor called Fernandez a “close friend.”

But Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners, is more than Scott’s friend. He’s also a huge contributor to his re-election campaign and the owner or co-owner of fast-growing healthcare companies that under Scott’s administration have been awarded multiple, multi-year state contracts potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most of those lucrative contracts involve Florida Medicaid, which is implementing managed care changes, including the Managed Medical Assistance program. The program is expected to begin in May.

fernandezinvite.jpgBetter Health Plan, which does business as Simply Better Health and is an affiliate of Fernandez’s $450 million Simply Healthcare Plans, won contracts from Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) last year to provide general services in three of Florida’s 11 Medicaid managed care regions, including Broward County.

Clear Health Alliance, a Medicaid plan offered by Simply Healthcare Plans, was awarded AHCA contracts to provide “specialty” services to Medicaid patients who are HIV positive or have been diagnosed with AIDS.

The Florida Times-Union first reported Fernandez’s ties to Better Health and Clear Alliance in January after Scott appointed Fernandez to his campaign team.

AHCA disclaimed any partiality in contract awards in a statement released by agency spokeswoman Shelisha Coleman.

“Every company that won an award in SMMC (Statewide Medicaid Managed Care program) rightfully earned its award. No companies received an award as a result of favoritism. The agency followed Florida’s strict procurement laws…in letter and in spirit at all times.’

Fernandez, reached Tuesday via email, said, “Companies in which I have invested in have Medicaid contracts, totaling in the billions since 1990. This includes contracts with the State of Florida under the leadership of multiple governors, including a contract under Governor Crist. All contracts save the state much needed funds and improved care to our patients.”

In October 2012, BrowardBulldog.org reported that Fernandez was a silent partner in a $44.8 million contract awarded by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) to manage mental health services in Broward.

The multi-year department contract went to the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit led by former DCF boss and state attorney general Bob Butterworth, and its for-profit partner, Concordia Behavioral Health of Miami.

Fernandez was a major Concordia shareholder. His name was disclosed to top department officials, but was omitted from DCF records about the procurement.

Fernandez’s invisibility regarding the Broward procurement meant that no one took note of his $125,000 contribution to Let’s Get to Work, a fundraising organization set up with the governor’s support, on Jan. 25, 2012 while the procurement was pending.

Previously, during Scott’s 2010 campaign, Fernandez and his MBF Family Investments gave Let’s Get to Work $500,000.

Asked about those large contributions in 2012, Katy Sorenson, head of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, said, “It sounds like maybe Gov. Scott is running Florida like a business – doing business with his friends.”

Fernandez’s money continues to gush the governor’s way.

On November 2, 2013, as the governor’s re-election campaign was stirring, Fernandez personally gave $1 million to Let’s Get to Work. No one else has written a check that large in support of Scott’s re-election.

Little River Plantation home

Little River Plantation home

Sunday’s get-together at Fernandez’s opulent Little River Plantation, not far from Tallahassee, is a by invitation only event. The public is not invited.

Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo recently obtained a copy of the invitation and accompanying email:

“As an important member of Governor Rick Scott’s finance team, Mike Fernandez is opening his home to you. He is not a public person and believes we need to meet each other in person and in a social setting…Nothing formal (casual jeans and casual setting.) We will chat, have BBQ and see beautiful horses…We need to come together so we can deliver victory together,” the email said.

Little River Plantation features a 7,000 square foot home with six bedrooms, seven baths, a full gourmet kitchen and a great room, according to its web site. There’s a smaller lake house nearby.

“Your every whim will be coddled within the walls of our fabulous homes away from home,” prospective guests are told.

Judges backed Butterworth’s push to nail down DCF’s $44.8 million Broward healthcare contract

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer, left, and ex-Judge Marcia Beach

A state appeals court chief judge and three Broward Circuit Court judges lent their names to Bob Butterworth’s private push for a $44.8 million-a-year state mental health management contract, state records show.

The judges are recently resigned members of the board of directors of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit that teamed up with Miami’s for-profit Concordia Behavioral Health to win the deal.

A multiyear contract is to be signed this week that establishes Broward Behavioral as the county’s new “managing entity” for substance abuse and mental health services.

Three judges who joined the board early on are identified by name and title on bid documents submitted to the Florida Department of Children and Families last winter by Butterworth, a former DCF secretary who is president and chairman of Broward Behavioral. Biographies of the judges were included.

Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, however, prohibits judges from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”

The judges are Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May, Broward Circuit Judges Michele Towbin-Singer and Marcia Beach – who recently retired, and county mental health court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Towbin-Singer succeeded Beach in drug court.

Each of the judges resigned from Broward Behavioral’s board this month after a state judicial ethics panel ruled in June that judges may not serve on such boards. Earlier, Butterworth had assured DCF negotiators the judges would not step down.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May

The last to resign: Judge May, who quit minutes before Monday evening’s board meeting. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The ethics opinion has not stopped judges around the state from serving on the boards of other DCF managing entities.

For example, in Miami-Dade Judges Steven Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen serve on the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman chairs the group.

DCF’s contract award in Broward last March prompted a bid protest from a competing group that claimed the contract had been illegally steered to Butterworth’s group by unnamed state officials. The protest was dismissed, but the corruption allegations were not investigated.

JUDGES’ NAMES MADE AN IMPRESSION  

Records show the judges’ presence on the board impressed DCF’s negotiators. Shortly before the contract was awarded last March, negotiators cited the judges as a reason to look favorably on Broward Behavioral’s bid, a review of audio recordings show.

BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that a silent investor in Concordia, Broward Behavioral’s profit-seeking partner, is a deep-pocketed political insider who has given heavily to Gov. Rick Scott’s campaigns.

On Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, an organization raising money for Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and one of his companies, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, records show.

JUDGES AND ETHICS

The connection of big campaign money to the Broward managing entity contract is particularly problematic for judges who are generally supposed to steer clear of political influence.

But there was another problem.

The June 11 ethics opinion that held judges should not serve on the boards of private, not-for-profit corporations that – like Broward Behavioral – are organized to administer tens of millions of dollars in DCF funds.

A judge in Palm Beach County had sought the opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee that advises judges so they can steer clear of trouble.

“Of particular concern in the present case is the nature of the managing entity. Viewed one way, the managing entity is a stand-in for an agency of the executive branch,” the opinion says. Judges who serve on such boards “could be said to be involved in the granting of governmental funds and overseeing their use.”

The opinion cited another concern: that judges who serve on such boards could be perceived as conduits or agents for vendors like Concordia.

“Whether or not the (unidentified vendor) is itself a corporation not for profit, a judge should take care not to lend the prestige of judicial office to advance its interests,” the opinion says.

Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

Judges May, Towbin-Singer and Beach served on Broward Behavioral’s board for months after the ruling. In September, records show, then-Judge Beach even participated with Butterworth in a contract negotiation session with DCF.

Judge Wren was not identified to DCF as a board member until Oct. 1.

BUTTERWORTH WANTS A BETTER ANSWER

Butterworth, a politically connected Democrat and former judge and sheriff, discussed the ethics ruling during an Oct. 9 negotiation session. He said Broward Behavioral’s judges had “been advised they don’t have to resign at this time” and that “every judge to the best of my knowledge” would continue to serve.

The state’s former top attorney also declared that he wanted to go back to the ethics committee with a reframed question in search of a better answer.

“We are attempting to work on an appropriate question to ask the committee and we hope we get a different response,” Butterworth told the DCF negotiators.

By last Thursday, however, the status of at least some of the judges had changed.

Hollywood attorney Larry Davis, a Broward Behavioral board member, informed the DCF negotiators that it was now decided the judges “can’t serve at this point” and that a search was on for replacements.

In an interview Friday, board member and County Commissioner Lois Wexler said that Judges Towbin-Singer, Beach and Wren had stepped down from Behavioral’s board.

Judge May, however, remained on the board. Earlier in the month, Butterworth had told DCF that the Fourth District Court of Appeal “is not covered by the advisory opinion,” but did not explain why.

On Monday, May arrived at Butterworth’s Fort Lauderdale law office about 15 minutes before the meeting and went to his office.

She expressed concern about “the negativity that’s around her participation” on the board, said Wexler.

Shortly after that, the judge resigned.

 

Major contributor to Gov. Scott is silent partner in Bob Butterworth’s $44.8 million deal with DCF

By Dan Christensen, Browardbulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Another political insider – this time a major contributor to Gov. Rick Scott – has cropped up in a $44.8 million-a-year government-business deal to manage mental health services in Broward County.

The Florida Department of Children and Families awarded the multi-year contract in March to Broward Behavioral Health Coalition and its for-profit partner Concordia Behavioral Health of Miami.

Bob Butterworth, the former head of DCF and an ex-Florida Attorney General, orchestrated the deal as president of Broward Behavioral. State officials say they expect to sign a deal by Nov. 1.

Now, BrowardBulldog.org has identified a second insider, this time as a silent partner.

Public records show that on Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a fundraising organization set up with the governor’s support.

Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and a company he controls, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed a total of $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, the records show.

“It sounds like maybe Gov. Scott is running Florida like a business – doing business with his friends,” said Katy Sorenson, head of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami.

“It smells, and it’s not the way to encourage public confidence in the process. Even if it’s legal it doesn’t make it right,” she said.

Bob Sharpe, president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health and a critic of how the contract was awarded, said, “I think we now need to know more. I’m not necessarily going to tie (Fernandez’s) contribution to his participation in the plan…That’s kind of like business as usual.”

KEEP A LID ON IT?

The DCF appears to have tried to keep a lid on Fernandez’s connection to Concordia.

Miguel Fernandez

Several hundred pages of public records released by DCF to BrowardBulldog.org about the Broward managing entity procurement make no mention of Fernandez.

And a DCF spokesman said in an interview that while the names of Concordia’s shareholders were disclosed to the department, they were not written down on paper and no one could remember them.

“I spoke to (lead negotiator) Tom Lewis, (Assistant Secretary) Rob Siedlecki – the two key guys – and Secretary (David) Wilkins and to a person none of us knew about Miguel Fernandez’s name or any contributions he may or may not have made,” said spokesman Joe Follick.

Follick added that Gov. Scott did not contact Secretary Wilkins about the contract.

BrowardBulldog.org contacted Concordia chairman and chief executive Carlos Saladrigas this week and asked about the company’s investors. He confirmed that Fernandez, who runs the private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners, and Martin Perez, co-founder of Miami’s Medica Health Care Plans, are fellow Concordia shareholders.

“They are passive investors and it’s not even in a personal capacity. It’s through some of their funds,” said Saladrigas, reached by phone while traveling in Japan.

FUEL FOR A CONTROVERSY

The disclosure that a major contributor to Gov. Scott’s re-election committee stands to profit from DCF’s Broward contract seems likely to ratchet up controversy about the lucrative deal won by a team whose public face is Butterworth.

Butterworth, a Hollywood resident, has long been a political powerbroker. In Broward, he’s also served as sheriff and judge.

The DCF is privatizing the state’s current job of managing government-funded substance abuse and mental health services for adults and children in Broward. It is a change that is happening across the state.

Shortly after the award, a competitor, the Partnership for Community Health, filed a 22-page bid protest alleging that unidentified state officials had illegally steered the contract to Butterworth’s nonprofit. Likewise, it alleged that Broward Behavioral is a front for its putative subcontractor, Concordia.

Bob Butterworth

DCF administratively rejected the protest and an appeals court tossed out the matter in August because the Partnership did not post a required appeal bond. The underlying accusations were not examined.

Bid documents submitted by Broward Behavioral describe detailed plans to implement “an innovative operating model” intended to save money and improve access to care. The documents also cite Concordia’s role in the new care system and describe the backgrounds of its management team, which includes Saladrigas and his daughter, psychologist Elisa Saladrigas.

The documents offer little detail about Concordia’s owners: “Concordia is well capitalized from private investors to fund its operations.’

But it is the financial muscle of those investors who are making DCF’s contract with Broward Behavioral possible.

BID INITIALLY REJECTED

In January, Broward Behavioral’s original bid was deemed “nonresponsive” because it did not include information the state requires to demonstrate financial stability.

To make up for that, Concordia’s owners offered to provide personal guarantees and/or a letter of credit to the state worth $750,000, according to records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org.

DCF negotiator Lewis endorsed the idea in a Feb. 23 email to Siedlecki and department General Counsel Marion Drew Parker that was not among the documents made public.

“Concordia’s three major shareholders are well known, financially substantial and respected investors with significant expertise in managed health care,” Lewis wrote. I “would intend to sit down and review the financial statements of the three guarantors to be sure the guarantee has substance.”

Lewis does not identify the shareholders in the memo, and apparently never reviewed their financial statements before forgetting their names.

Saladrigas said Monday he expects those guarantees to be signed upon his return to Florida this week.

Fernandez did not respond to a request for comment. Perez declined comment.

INSIDER AND PHILANTHROPIST

Fernandez, whose MBF Healthcare boasts in excess of $500 million in capital to invest in healthcare businesses, is a major philanthropist who has built and sold a number of South Florida businesses and given millions away to charity.

Recipients of his largesse include the University of Miami’s business school, St. Thomas University and Miami Children’s Hospital.

Fernandez is also among South Florida’s most active political donors – mostly to Republican candidates and causes.

Besides the money he sent Gov. Scott’s way, state records show that since 2010 Fernandez has personally contributed $540,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. His MBF Family of companies kicked in thousands more.

Carlos Saladrigas

The Florida Democratic Party received $25,000 from Fernandez in the same period.

Fernandez is also a strong supporter of Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.  He and MFB Family have contributed $1 million to Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Romney.

Another $100,000 spent during the current election cycle went mostly to the Republican National Committee.

Aside from Concordia, Fernandez and Saladrigas are business associates in MBF.

Saladrigas is on a three-person advisory committee at MBF Healthcare Partners that helps Fernandez vet investment opportunities. Both men are on the board of directors of MBF Healthcare Acquisition Corp.

In 2010-2011, another MBF company run by Fernandez and incorporated only in Delaware, was registered as the owner of short-lived Concordia Healthcare Ventures.

CHV was voluntarily dissolved on Aug. 19, 2011 – two months before the October public announcement of the Broward managing entity procurement.

Four days later, on Aug. 23, another ownership group – Concordia Healthcare Limited Partnership – was formed.  Its general partner was another company, Concordia Healthcare Management.

Concordia Healthcare Management lists a single officer and director, Carlos Saladrigas.

Miguel Fernandez’s name is nowhere to be found.

 

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