By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org
For more than a decade Broward Health has ignored its own rules, allowing lobbyists to operate freely behind the scenes as they seek to influence who gets tens of millions of dollars in contracts the hospital district awards every year.
Broward Health’s failure to enforce its own lobbyist registration policy is another management snafu by the billion-dollar public health system whose business practices are being probed by federal and state investigators.
One lobbyist who tried to register a year ago literally had to beg the system’s staff to enforce its own rules.
“I hounded them. Maybe there was something going on behind the scene they didn’t want known,” Seth Platt of Miami Beach-based LSN Partners recalled. Platt had a client in April 2015 seeking to provide free marketing services in exchange for product placements in the district’s four hospitals.
Platt eventually forced the hospital staff to allow him to attempt to register. A district lawyer sent him a copy of Broward Health’s five-page lobbyist policy passed by commissioners in 2004 with a registration form. He filled it out and sent it – he doesn’t recall to whom – but it apparently landed in the circular file. Broward Health has no record of it.
Broward Health Commission Chairman Rocky Rodriguez, appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2013, was surprised when told the lobbyist registration had never been implemented.
“You assume these things are being taken care of. The board doesn’t get involved in operations,” Rodriguez said. “The public has a right to know who is lobbying the hospital district.”
Even more surprising is that Commissioner Sheela VanHoose serves on the board’s legal affairs committee that recently held workshops to establish a lobbying policy without being told by staff that a policy was already in place.
A waste of time
“We’ve spent two committee meetings talking about a lobbying policy and most of what we talked about is not relevant,” she said after being provided a copy of the policy. “It was a little shock to see.”
VanHoose said she wants to know why no registration process was ever established and will ask the administration to provide a list of registered lobbyists at the next regular board meeting on May 25.
“How did it happen and how do we prevent it from happening again? Those are the questions that we as board members need to answer,” said VanHoose.
Unlike city and county governments, hospital taxing districts like Broward Health are not required by law to register lobbyists or compel them to publicly disclose what they’re up to and who they represent.
Still, in a 2004 nod to protecting the “integrity” of the hospital district’s “governmental and contracting processes,” Broward Health’s board of commissioners adopted a five-page lobbying policy requiring both registration and disclosure, with sanctions for violators.
The policy remains in effect, but hospital district administrators never followed through to set up a registration process or even acknowledge on its website that such a policy exists. Not a single lobbyist has ever registered at Broward Health, district officials told FloridaBulldog.org.
Today, Broward Health is a lobbyists’ playground. The hospital district’s forlorn attempt to flush them from the shadows is all but forgotten.
Platt’s attempt to register was disclosed in an interview with Charlotte Mather-Taylor, Broward Health’s vice president for government relations. She said she was never instructed to set up a registration process and that when a frustrated Platt contacted her about registering, she referred him to the district’s lawyers, who sent him a copy of the lobbying policy and told him to call the CEO’s executive secretary.
“That was the last I heard about it,” said Mather-Taylor.
Platt told FloridaBulldog.org that after sending in his now-lost registration form, he pitched his client’s marketing proposal to Broward Health Senior Vice President Doris Peek and others, but nothing came of it. Instead a month later, in May 2015, the district signed a $2.1-million marketing deal with Fort Lauderdale’s Zimmerman Advertising that later morphed into a controversial proposal for a $71.4-million ad deal. The proposal withered following the Jan. 23 suicide of Broward Health CEO Dr. Nabil El Sanadi.
Gov. Rick Scott’s investment
Broward Health, the brand name of the North Broward Hospital District, has awarded many fat contracts during the years its lobbying policy was not enforced. Perhaps the fattest was an unprecedented 25-year, no-bid deal in 2012 that outsourced the public hospital system’s radiation oncology services to a Fort Myers-based cancer care company, 21st Century Oncology.
FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that at the time of the deal Gov. Rick Scott had an indirect ownership interest in 21st Century Oncology via his $210,000 investment in Vestar Capital Partners, the private equity firm that owns 21st Century.
The governor’s office has said Scott had “no conversation or contact about Vestar Capital or 21st Century Oncology with the North Broward Hospital District.” Still, Scott’s good friend and confidant, Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William “Billy” Rubin, is known to have lobbied at Broward Health and counts 21st Century Oncology among his clients.
Rubin likewise represents two other companies that have lucrative contracts with Broward Health: Armor Correctional Health, the county jail’s in-house healthcare provider, and Emcare, which has a trio of contracts to provide emergency and urgent care services, obstetrical and gynecological care and pediatric care. Those two contracts and the one with 21st Century Oncology are worth tens of millions of dollars.
Rubin, however, is not registered to lobby at Broward Health.
Broward Health’s lobbying policy was approved in November 2004. It drew from state law to define who is considered a lobbyist and says “no person(s) may lobby the district or any of is board members, employees or agent until such person has registered as a lobbyist with the district’s Vice President/Corporate Services.”
A hitch: Broward Health has no Vice President/Corporate Services.
“That’s not a title that belongs to anybody I know,” said Rodriguez. “We have a lot of vice presidents. But nobody with that title.”
The policy requires lobbyists, in addition to identifying themselves, to disclose the nature of the business activity and any business or financial relationships they have with any Broward Health board member, employee or agent. Lobbyists must also submit an annual statement of each of their lobbying expenditures before the district in excess of $100. Violators can be precluded for lobbying at the district “for a period of time to be determined by the board” and their clients may be debarred.
In 2014, after Rodriguez complained about board members being swamped by “tons and tons of phone calls” from lawyers, doctors and others about contract negotiations, the board amended its policy to prohibit lobbying “during the consideration of any contracts.”
Missing from the updated policy was the original lobbyist registration form that lobbyists were supposed to use to disclose under oath information about themselves and their clients.