Rural Health axes contracts; board member out

dmarsteller@bradenton.comOctober 10, 2010 

MANATEE — Manatee County Rural Health Services has accelerated its reform efforts, and the casualties include a board member and three companies owned by agency insiders, officials acknowledged.

The agency also plans to add three independent seats to its board, has hired several outside consultants to review its operations and is reviewing contracts with two board members’ companies.

“They are taking steps to make fundamental changes,” said Tom Nolan, a local political consultant recently hired to be the agency’s media liaison.

The board, Nolan said, acknowledged “that over time things have been done in a very relaxed manner... It was a group decision that we can do things a lot better.”

But most changes are being done out of the public eye. For example, the new board members will be chosen by the existing board, whose meetings remain closed to the public.

When pressed to provide specifics on its reform efforts — such as implementation timelines, costs and how they will be paid for — the agency replied with vague answers or said more details would be released after the board’s Oct. 20 meeting.

The proposed changes stem from a Bradenton Herald investigation that found the agency steered at least $3 million in contracts and leases to board members, officers, employees or their family members’ businesses. The newspaper also reported that Rural Health Chief Executive Officer Walter “Mickey” Presha Sr. earns more than $400,000 a year as the highest-paid CEO of any federally qualified community health center in Florida.

Among those contracts was one with Rural Health board member John L. Lewis, who has tendered his resignation from the board after more than 25 years but will remain until a successor is named.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” Lewis told the Herald on Friday. “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. I don’t think the executive director has done anything wrong.”

Rural Health has paid Lewis’ company at least $558,121 for optometry services since 2004, according to tax filings. Lewis’ contract with Rural Health is being reviewed by the board’s audit committee, Nolan said.

The agency declined to release committee members’ names, saying the board will be asked Oct. 20 to authorize their release.

The audit committee also is reviewing the agency’s $4,000-a-month contract with a consulting firm whose principals include board member Marc Lazarus, Nolan said. The firm, R&L Healthcare Advisors, has been paid more than $96,000 since 2008, tax records show.

The agency also said it has canceled or will cancel:

n A lease on storage space owned by More Power Properties and Investments LLC, which is co-owned by board Chairman Garry Lowe. The lease was terminated in September, the agency said.

n A contract with A to Z Complete Property Management Inc. for janitorial cleaning and maintenance services. It is owned by Chris Mullinex, Rural Health’s facilities director.

n The Lawn Authority of Manatee County Inc.’s contract to provide lawn care maintenance at the agency’s facilities. Wardell Jackson, Rural Health’s vice president of support services, is a principal in the business.

n Various construction contracts with The Pinnacle Group of West Coast Florida Inc., whose principals include Trina Presha-Rosier, Presha’s daughter.

The A to Z and Lawn Authority contracts are expected to be canceled in November, after the agency hires replacement contractors, Nolan said. Pinnacle will complete projects already under way — including office renovations and a bathroom installation — and will no longer bid for Rural Health jobs, he said.

The agency also has hired several outside consultants to guide its changes, including:

n Shinn & Co. to “act as an independent auditor for one year,” the agency said in a briefing paper. Byron Shinn said his firm will help Rural Health implement best practices. Records show the Bradenton accounting firm has done Rural Health’s annual tax returns for at least a decade and performed the agency’s financial audit for the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years.

n Pete Smith, a compensation consultant based in McLean, Va., to recommend appropriate salaries for several top Rural Health executives, including Presha. Smith was quoted by the Herald in an Aug. 23 story that Presha’s 2009 salary of $433,000 “doesn’t sound all that unreasonable.”

n Cliff Walters and Jonathan Fleece of Bradenton law firm Blalock, Walters, Held & Johnson P.A. Among other things, they plan to help the agency strengthen its bylaws and conflict-of-interest policies, develop procurement standards and expand its board to 12 members.

The new board seats will be filled by independent community members who will be recruited, interviewed and selected by the board, the agency said.

Rural Health also has created a procurement director position and hired Tanita Montgomery for the post. Montgomery previously was a minority business relations manager at Tampa General Hospital and also worked in procurement for Wachovia Securities, the Jacksonville Electric Authority and Duval County schools, according to a resume supplied by the agency.

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