By Dan Christensen and Karla Bowsher, FloridaBulldog.org
As Broward Health’s board of commissioners dithered last week about how to implement a 12-year-old, yet newly discovered lobbyist registration policy, reform-minded CEO Pauline Grant said she would have a registration system up and running in June.
“I have come up with procedures to implement registration over the next couple of weeks,” Grant said in an interview on Friday. “It will be done.”
News of Broward Health’s failure to enforce its own lobbyist registration policy gave yet another black eye to a beleaguered hospital system that’s already the focus of federal and state agents.
In a brief discussion at Wednesday’s regular board meeting, Commissioner Sheela VanHoose said board members want an online registration system. In an interview afterward, she said it should be comparable to those used by Broward County or Broward Public Schools.
“That to me is accountability and transparency at its best,” said VanHoose, whose paying job is as a lobbyist for Charter Schools USA.
VanHoose heads the district’s Legal Affairs Committee, which spent months studying how to develop a lobbyist policy without being told by staff that a policy already existed.
“You assume these things are being taken care of. The board doesn’t get involved in operations,” said Broward Health board Chairman Rocky Rodriguez. “The public has a right to know who is lobbying the hospital district.”
What’s happened has caused VanHoose to wonder whether other policies have not been followed. She said she’s talked with Grant about creating a searchable database of district policies.
“People come and go … so there has to be a process put in place to make sure nothing slips through the cracks in the future,” VanHoose said in an interview.
Unlike city and county governments, hospital taxing districts like the North Broward Hospital District – Broward Health’s legal name – are not required by law to register lobbyists or compel them to publicly disclose what they’re up to and who they represent.
Lobbying policy adopted, not implemented
In 2004, however, Broward Health’s board adopted a five-page lobbying policy requiring lobbyists to register, identify their clients and disclose both the nature of their business activity and any business or financial relationships they have with Broward Health board members, employees or agents. Also while under oath, lobbyists were supposed to submit an annual statement for each of their lobbying expenditures before the district in excess of $100. Violators can be debarred.
Still, the district has never required a single lobbyist to register.
Nevertheless, district records show that the board was aware of its policy enough to modify it in 2014 after Rodriguez complained about being swamped by “tons and tons of phone calls” from advocates for doctors and others in contract negotiations. The change: lobbying was prohibited “during the consideration of any contracts.”
Wednesday’s board meeting also included a brief speech by Broward Health compliance manager Brian Nicholas, who talked about a “culture of fear, retaliation and bullying” at the district.
As an example, Nicholas cited the reaction of board Chairman Rocky Rodriguez and Commissioner Christopher Ure to a recent anonymous letter that accused General Counsel Lynn Barrett of impropriety involving the Baker Donelson law firm.
Broward Health hired Baker Donelson last year to serve as the “independent review organization” that monitors its compliance with the terms of its federal settlement of Medicare and Medicaid fraud allegations last fall. Nicholas said that when the anonymous complaint was discussed at a May 18 committee meeting, Rodriguez and Ure were only concerned with trying to identify the author, not with the complaint itself.
“I believe you’ve now given a figurative middle finger to the federal government,” Nicholas told commissioners. “I will undoubtedly be retaliated against.”