By Buddy Nevins and Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A politically connected advertising firm repeatedly pressured Broward Health staff to complete a no-bid, multi-million dollar contract despite the suicide of CEO Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, the deal’s chief proponent.
Numerous Broward Health e-mails obtained by the FloridaBulldog.org show Zimmerman Advertising kept lobbying even the day of El Sanadi’s memorial service, when the hospital district’s staff was in mourning.
At least one Zimmerman executive allegedly sought to apply political pressure by dropping the name of a Broward Health commissioner in an effort to sway the staff into signing the contract.
Among those reported in the same e-mail to be applying that pressure: Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca, a Zimmerman employee and former chairman of the Republican Party of Broward County.
Doris Peek is Broward Health’s Information Technology chief and the staff member appointed to negotiate with Zimmerman. The day after El Sanadi’s funeral, she explained the tactics being used in an e-mail to Broward Health’s then-acting CEO Kevin Fusco and General Counsel Lynn Barrett.
“Am I to assume you have spoken to the board member whose name is being used by Zimmerman to press us to move forward? You had planned to call the person on Thursday/Friday after Chip LaMarca told (Zimmerman Senior Vice President) Bert (Sutcliffe) to proceed based on an alleged conversation with this board member. Did you speak to the board member?” Peek wrote on Jan. 30.
“Until we get all the parties on the same call/meeting, this sort of push/pull/full court press will continue. If you did not connect with the board member, I would like to be present to hear the conversation first hand. This ‘hearsay’ and ‘third party’ interference is wearing all of us down.”
In an e-mail statement, LaMarca vehemently denied pressuring or interfering with the Broward Health staff.
“These allegations are categorically untrue, full stop. I have never done this and any allegation to the contrary is unequivocally false,” LaMarca wrote.
Zimmerman: No pressure
In response to a request for a comment to Jordan Zimmerman, the advertising agency’s founder, the company released a statement:
“At no time did Zimmerman Advertising pressure any staff member of Broward Health to complete a pending advertising contract after Dr. El Sanadi’s death.”
Republican Gov. Rick Scott appointed each of the volunteer commissioners who oversee Broward Health.
The e-mails don’t name the board member LaMarca allegedly mentioned. But LaMarca is close to David Di Pietro, the Broward Health board chairman who was suspended last week by Gov. Scott. (Di Pietro sued the governor this week, contending Scott lacked the authority to suspend him.)
In addition to being personal friends with him, attorney Di Pietro has represented LaMarca and raised money and helped with strategy for LaMarca’s re-election effort.
“David DiPietro is a loyal friend and a volunteer who supports my campaign,” LaMarca said.
Broward’s Code of Ethics for Elected Officials forbids county commissioners from lobbying other governments in the county, including the North Broward Hospital District – Broward Health’s legal name. Here’s how the code is worded: “elected officials shall not be employed as a lobbyist or engage in lobbying activities…”
LaMarca, however, denied promoting Zimmerman to Broward Health’s commissioners or staff. He also said he doesn’t fit the ethics code’s definition of a lobbyist because his principal work for Zimmerman is as a community “liaison,” not as a lobbyist. The code narrowly defines a lobbyist as someone who is “principally” employed to lobby on behalf of a person or entity.
“Any allegation that I lobbied Broward Health is not supported by the facts and is a completely false characterization of my position and activities,” he said.
Before accepting employment at the advertising firm, LaMarca asked the county attorney whether his work would be legal under the county’s ethics code. Basing their opinion on what LaMarca told them about his new job, the opinion stated, “It is our understanding that your offer of employment is not for the principal purpose of you lobbying on behalf of Zimmerman. Accordingly, your employment by Zimmerman is permissible.”
‘A sounding board’
LaMarca did concede that he spoke occasionally about marketing with Broward Health’s chief executive, the late Dr. El Sanadi.
“From time to time, Dr. El Sanadi would contact me as a sounding board to discuss various county and community issues. At times, he invited me to discuss Broward Health’s marketing plan as he was personally interested in having a successful ad campaign for Broward Health,” LaMarca said in his written statement.
“On two occasions, Dr. El Sanadi invited Doris Peek (whom I did not know prior and was not aware of her attendance at our first meeting) into our conversation regarding Broward Health’s marketing plan.”
The Broward Health e-mails, however, indicate LaMarca played a more vital role in the district’s negotiations with Zimmerman Advertising.
The public health care system awarded Zimmerman a contract to handle its advertising and marketing business last May. No other firms were considered other than Zimmerman, whose founder and chief executive Jordan Zimmerman is a generous contributor to Republican candidates.
In December, the firm sought to expand its work to a $71.4-million, six-year agreement. Despite a warning from Broward Health’s then-chief financial officer that the deal was based on phony statistics, Broward Health commissioners agreed to begin the new wider relationship but demanded that measures to judge the effectiveness of the work be incorporated in a new contract to be approved a month later in January.
Commissioners were to vote Jan. 27 to authorize El Sanadi to sign the amended contract, but the vote was canceled after El Sanadi’s suicide four days earlier.
As the January meeting date approached, the e-mails indicate that Zimmerman Advertising was balking at signing any contract tied to its performance.
“Jordan Zimmerman and Chip LaMarca have refused to agree to a performance based contract and I now have to go back to the board for different instructions,” Peek wrote to attorney Barrett on Jan. 15.
Four days later, Peek wrote Barrett again, “The problem is z (Zimmerman) refuses to go at risk with the retainer.”
Zimmerman Advertising’s statement, released by General Manager of Agency Operations Ronnie Haligman, denied Peek’s account.
“Zimmerman did not refuse to sign a performance-based amendment; rather, Broward Health’s outside counsel, David Ashburn, advised Broward Health from entering into a performance-based amendment due to concerns that it would be illegal,” the statement said.
El-Sanadi shot himself in a men’s room in his condominium building on Saturday, Jan. 23. Three days later, while Broward Health’s staff was in mourning, a Zimmerman account supervisor e-mailed a copy of a new Broward Health television ad to Sharn Kee, a Broward Health marketing manager.
Peek’s curt reply, “As you know, the BH leadership has asked Z to hold/cancel all production and distribution of media channels…”
Not giving up
But Zimmerman wasn’t giving up. At 8:42 a.m. on Jan. 29, just hours before El Sanadi’s memorial service, Zimmerman Senior Vice President Bert Sutcliffe wrote to Kee.
“It’s critically important that this spot is approved to release immediately,” Sutcliffe said.
Kee forwarded the Zimmerman e-mail to superiors Fusco, Peek and Barrett with the following note: “Please forgive me for requesting this on such a sad day. But Zimmerman are (sic) pushing us to release this TV spot today.”
Fusco replied the next day, “We can’t authorize spend that exceeds the current contract.” (Fusco was removed as chief executive on March 16.)
Peek e-mailed back to Fusco, “Thank you Kevin for validation of what we concluded over a week ago. “
But Zimmerman continued to push.
On the morning of Feb. 4, LaMarca e-mailed David Ashburn, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Broward Health. “I’m in Tallahassee on county business and wanted to see if you had a minute to chat. I’m near your office most of the day so just let me know if you have a few minutes. Regards, Chip LaMarca.”
While LaMarca was in Tallahassee, Zimmerman’s Bert Sutcliffe was trying to persuade Broward Health staff to “get aligned” on future advertising for the hospital district, according to a Feb. 4 e-mail.
By now, however, negotiator Peek, under pressure for the past month, seemed to have cooled on Zimmerman.
“My recommendation is to bring BACK IN HOUSE all bill board contracts. That way we have flexibility… and based on previous payment review, Zimmerman rates are greater than the rates we were getting when we negotiated the contracts … correct?” she wrote to Barrett, Ashburn and Fusco on Feb. 16.
Broward Health’s advertising contract remains on hold.