Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Personnel issue dominates reform hearing

By Bethany Jaeger
Illinois Democrats and Republicans appeared split on whether to use legislation to fire two executive staff members of a hospital planning board plagued by corruption early in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration in 2003 and 2004. Controversy is nothing new to the Health Facilities Planning Board, and that’s not unique to Illinois. See the National Conference of State Legislators for background on the widespread debate.

Today’s debate, while tense and awkward at times, opens the door for more systemic questions about whether the legislature should fire individuals by name through legislation and whether the legislature can effectively remove politics from the hospital planning process altogether.

The process typically is designed to review hospital construction projects in an attempt to control costs and maintain access to critical health care services. Today’s bicameral legislative committee on government reform, however, didn’t focus on reforming the process (that was the focus of a previous legislative task force — its report is here). Members instead focused on whether the General Assembly should use legislation to terminate two high-level employees. Both are subject to harsh criticism from a hospital executive who blew the whistle on what turned out to be deep-rooted corruption in 2003.

House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Tom Cross, want to fire Jeffrey Mark, executive secretary of the Health Facilities Planning Board, and David Carvalho, a deputy director of the Illinois Department of Public Health that oversees the employees. “In our efforts to continue to fumigate state government, this is another board that needs to be sanitized and start fresh with new players from top to bottom,” Cross said.

Cross added, however: “While we are not alleging that either of the two that held these positions themselves did anything illegal, corrupt activity happened under their watch. They were there before, during and after corrupt activity occurred.”

Both were hired in 2003 and served for six months during a scheme that convicted former board member Stuart Levine and Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko of federal corruption. According to federal prosecutors, Levine and Rezko schemed with a handful of others, including Blagojevich, to rig the state panel to reward themselves and political allies.

Both Mark and Carvalho testified to the committee that they had nothing to do with the schemes and notified appropriate authorities when they noticed irregularities in the way the board operated. For instance, they cited a situation when the board stopped in the middle of taking a vote during a public hearing to sway one more member to support granting a construction permit to a particular hospital project.

“It happened on my watch, yes it did,” Mark said to the committee. “Was I aware of it? Absolutely not. Should I have been aware of it? I’m not sure.” He said he was a subordinate who immediately reported questionable practices to the agency’s lawyer and inspector general. He later cooperated with the U.S. attorney’s office during the investigation.

Carvalho said he, too, conveyed his concerns lawyers and the inspector general. He also said Rezko’s trial revealed he and Levine, in fact, were trying to get rid of him because he was a “pain in the butt.” “What I have tried to do throughout the process is to stand in the way of people, both who were members of the board and people who were applicants, who were trying to get from this process what was not due them under the rules. And today I do feel like that person standing in front of a steamroller for simply doing my job.”

One who did report the suspicious activity directly to federal authorities was Pam Davis, president of Edward Hospital and Health Services in Naperville. She cooperated with the FBI for eight months by secretly recording phone calls and meetings related to her repeated application for a construction permit to build a new hospital in the rapidly growing village of Plainfield. She was pressured to hire a specific construction firm owned by Jacob Kiferbaum, who was scheming with Rezko. “If I did not use their services, I would never have this hospital approved,” she said. The Plainfield hospital project still has not been approved by the board.

Davis stopped short of alleging that Mark and Carvalho acted illegally, but she supports the House Republicans’ efforts to oust them from public office for allegedly protecting the status quo with outdated and unfair regulations and for failing to speak out during irregularities in the board’s proceedings. “While not pointing to any legalities by either of these two public officials, I can only imagine that the corrupt board members felt totally emboldened and powered by this lack of transparency.”

Carvalho said during his testimony: “Contrary to the suggestions of the CEO, the staff of the Health Facilities Planning Board, and I, in particular, are, in fact, grateful to her for her courageous efforts to expose the corruption of that prior board.”

Mark said: “I observed the same things she observed.” He said he felt “confused and surprised, and as I stated before the committee, I consulted the appropriate authorities.”

Mark was recommended for his position more than five years ago by Rezko. “It’s a matter of public record that my name was submitted by Tony Rezko,” Mark said after the hearing. “I met the man once prior to him taking my name. People can perceive whatever they want. I think my background and my record speak for itself. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished the last five years. I’m very not proud of what occurred during my first six months in this position.”

Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat who has been working on the health planning process for a year, said the current controversy could be rooted in bitterness over the panel’s decision to repeatedly deny Davis’ proposal for a Plainfield hospital. “It appears that the process for decades has been political, and that has been the downfall of this whole health facilities planning process. It was our hope and intent to remove the politics,” Garrett said.

“As somebody who is trying to be impartial and bipartisan, we thought we resolved that,” she added. “And I don’t think that has happened. And, quite frankly, I’m not sure today resolved any of the issues that were brought up three days ago or three years ago or three decades ago.”

The measure, SB 1905 (Senate-approved version here), is slated for consideration in a House committee Wednesday afternoon.

Quinn previously tried to name a new chairman of the board, Dr. Quentin Young, in April, but Young soon resigned because of a possible conflict of interest. (He realized that his former practice owns part of a property that rents space to a health care provider. State rules prevents the chair from having financial ties to any facility licensed by the state.)

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