By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org
Five weeks after hiring a Fort Lauderdale law firm to help it respond to a state review of its contracts, Broward Health’s governing board reversed course Wednesday and fired the firm.
Mitchell Berger and the Berger Singerman law firm were axed in a 4-1 vote that appeared to dance around the true reason for the change: partisan politics.
As the two-time finance chair of the Florida Democratic Party and co-chair of the National Finance Council of the National Democratic Committee for almost three years, Berger is one of Broward County’s best-known Democratic fund raisers. His hiring by Broward Health’s Republican board – all appointed by Gov. Rick Scott – did not go unnoticed in the Governor’s Office in Tallahassee.
Berger was singled out for criticism in a letter from the Inspector General to Gov. Scott that resulted in the suspension of two commissioners on March 18.
“It’s clear I’m becoming an issue,” Berger told commissioners during a 3½ hour meeting during which the words Republican and Democrat were not uttered.
He offered a list of well-connected Republican lawyers as his replacement, including former Florida Senate President Jim Scott of the Fort Lauderdale-based Tripp Scott law firm, former state Republican Chair Al Cardenas and former Miami U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez. Berger didn’t recommend a single Democrat.
Commissioner Joel Gustafson appeared to agree.
“Maybe we need someone politically more favored,” said Gustafson, a long-time Republican activist and former GOP House member.
Fired for being a Democrat?
But no one said flatly that Berger was being fired for being a Democrat, including him.
Both Gustafson and Berger were referring to the board’s intention to send a delegation to Tallahassee to meet with Scott’s Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel in hopes of reigning in the scope of her “review” of the district’s contracts – an inquiry that expanded recently into a demand for records about executive personnel, reported conflicts of interest and behind-the-scenes lobbying practices.
Berger sought to organize such a meeting but was refused. Instead, Miguel accused Berger Singerman of interfering with her review and recommended that suspensions of former Chairman David Di Pietro and Commissioner Darryl Wright. Gov. Scott suspended both men for “malfeasance” within hours of that recommendation on March 18.
The same day, Berger wrote a letter to Miguel that accused her of being “intent upon destroying the very concept of a community-owned and operated public healthcare system.”
In an interview Wednesday, Berger said the letter wasn’t sent to Miguel because the board hadn’t approved it. The letter was, however, included in reports Berger twice gave to commissioners at meetings this week and last week.
The letter was written amid talk among district insiders of a push by the governor to privatize both of Broward’s public hospital systems – Broward Health and Memorial Healthcare. It doesn’t address that talk, but instead goes after Miguel, whose job is to promote public trust in government and “to assist the Executive Office of the Governor in the accomplishment of its objectives,” according to her office’s most recent annual report.
Wednesday’s meeting also included discouraging financial news about the independent special taxing district.
Chief Financial Officer Arthur Wallace reported that Broward Health’s year-to-date loss from operations is $108.1 million, about $8 million worse than projected. Wallace described an operational loss of $9.1 million in February as $3.1 million better than expected.
Broward Health, while suffering recent credit rating downgrades, reported a year-to-date deficiency of $59.2 million, significantly more than the budgeted amount of $51.3 million.
Expenses exceeded revenue by $4 million in February.