MANATEE — Charlie Wells says he wasn’t planning to work again when he retired in 2007 after a 23-year stint as Manatee County sheriff.
But when Walter “Mickey” Presha offered him a job with Manatee County Rural Health Services, Wells changed his mind.
He now markets and raises money for the nonprofit agency’s foundation. As an executive vice president of Rural Health, he makes more than $102,000 a year — $16,000 less than his last sheriff’s salary.
“I’m busy, but I love every minute of it,” Wells said.
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He isn’t the only politically well-connected and influential person with work and volunteer ties to Rural Health, whose mission is to provide affordable medical services to indigent, low-income and/or uninsured residents in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
n Frank Brunner, a Manatee school board member from 1996 to 2006, the agency’s paid community relations and government affairs director between 1998 and 2007.
n Lynette Edwards, a Manatee County schools assistant superintendent, an unpaid volunteer Rural Health board member since 2006.
n Garry Lowe, Palmetto’s former police chief, chairman of Rural Health’s volunteer board of directors, all of whom are unpaid.
n John McKay, former state Senate president, sits on the volunteer board of the agency’s Family Health Care Centers of Manatee Foundation. His wife, Michelle, is Rural Health’s paid Tallahassee lobbyist.
n Bradenton political consultant Tom Nolan, whose clients have included numerous local and state politicians, recently hired by Rural Health’ lawyers to be the agency’s media liaison.
n Sharon L. Wall, Rural Health’s human resources director, is married to Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.
n Wells’ 23-year-old son, Logan, employed as outreach and community development specialist for the agency.
These and other connections give Rural Health hefty political clout that agency officials say allows them to better serve their clients.
“We are blessed to have people of influence and experience who are willing to serve MCRH,” the agency said in a written statement to the Bradenton Herald.
But it also has been a lightning rod for critics, who say those appointments smack of political patronage and cronyism.
“It seems like well-connected people always get well-paying jobs with Manatee Rural Health Services,” said Barbara Elliott, a Bradenton community activist. “It doesn’t smell right.”
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Presha, the agency’s chief executive since 1984, confirmed those individuals’ ties to Rural Health, but said in an e-mail that “privacy laws prohibit me from discussing current and past employees, their job performance and salaries.”
Brunner and Edwards did not return telephone messages seeking comment on their Rural Health work. The agency said Brunner voluntarily left for other employment and that federal laws require it to have a board member who represents education. That currently is Edwards.
Michelle McKay referred all questions about her Rural Health work to Presha, saying in an e-mail that “it is my policy not to discuss client matters with the media.”
The agency’s statement said she has been under contract since August 2006. Her duties include “monitoring of legislation affecting the delivery of healthcare, securing and maintaining funding for various healthcare initiatives by MCRH for the poor and uninsured, as well as monitoring regulatory compliance issues at the agency level.”
The agency did not respond to the Herald’s questions, both written and verbal, concerning how much it has paid her, other contractors or employees.
John McKay said he became familiar with Rural Health during his 12 years as a state senator, including a two-year stint as Senate president. So when he was approached by Presha about joining the foundation’s volunteer board about five years ago, McKay accepted.
“Without Rural Health, so many patients would end up in the emergency room,” he told the Herald. “Because they provided such a good service and kept so many people out of the emergency rooms, I thought they were worth my assistance.”
John McKay said he also considers Presha “a very good friend.”
Wall, who married Hunzeker in 2004, became Rural Health’s human resources director in January, the agency said.
Rural Health’s statement cited her 30-plus years of experience, including stints as the human resources director for Hillsborough and Lake counties, as reasons for hiring her. Both Nolan and Hunzeker say she was hired on her own merits.
“My wife found employment solely on her own,” Hunzeker said. “That’s why she goes by Sharon Wall. She stands on her own feet.”
Logan Wells joined Rural Health in September 2009, and works with various departments “in identifying and helping to develop business relationships” and “to reach out and develop community partnerships,” the agency’s statement said.
Charlie Wells said his son began in Rural Health’s maintenance department and liked it so much that he decided to stay with the agency after graduating from firefighter school.
“I don’t work with my son,” Charlie Wells said. “Mickey has him do things at Rural Health. He doesn’t work with me or for me, and that’s the way we both want it.”
But it is Charlie Wells’ hiring and salary that has drawn the most scrutiny.
Wells and Presha have known each other for more than 20 years, first working together to establish the Police Athletic League’s charter school. Wells called Presha “absolutely one of the most outstanding leaders I’ve ever worked with.”
But critics have suggested that relationship led to Wells being hired because of who he is — something that he and Presha don’t deny.
“He was chief of police in Bradenton and he was sheriff for 23 years,” Presha said, adding that name recognition and connections are vital in fundraising. “He’s well-known, no doubt about that.”
“It’s hard to raise money if you don’t know anybody,” he said. “To be able to walk into an office or make a call and they know who I am, is that an advantage? Yes, it is. I’ve got a name that a lot of people still recognize. Is it helpful? Yes.”
Wells estimates he has secured roughly $500,000 in donations and bequeaths since he began working for the foundation, about half of his personal goal. Most of that has been from an annual awards dinner named after longtime former state Sen. Edgar Price Jr., who was instrumental in Rural Health’s creation.
The foundation, created in 1999 but largely inactive until 2007, hasn’t yet decided where it will target the money but the likely focus is child health care, Wells said.
The foundation reported $159,106 in revenue and $87,145 in expenses during the fiscal year that ended Nov. 30, 2009, according to its latest tax return. It reported $146,202 in net assets as of that date.
On its website, the foundation calls itself “an independent philanthropic organization committed to supporting Manatee County Rural Health Services.” To further buttress its independence, the foundation says on tax returns that it is not affiliated with or related to any other tax-exempt organization.
But the foundation and Rural Health are deeply intertwined, records show.
Although they now have separate boards, Rural Health’s directors comprised the foundation’s first board. Presha has been the foundation’s president and chief executive officer since its creation, and his Rural Health assistant is the primary contact for the foundation’s annual fundraising dinner. Rural Health’s finance director keeps the foundation’s books. And Wells’ foundation salary is listed on Rural Health’s tax return, not the foundation’s.
Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.