New political troubles down in the Valley by Scott St. Clair
Why is a campaign for a zero-salary hospital commissioner position generating nearly $59,000 in contributions? Incumbent Mike Miller has raised that much in his race to stay on the board of commissioners for King County Public Hospital District No. l, the oldest and largest in Washington state. The district owns and operates Valley Medical Center in Renton and employs one of the highestpaid public employees in the state. CEO Rich Roodman’s salary was $900,000 last year. What about the picture of Miller at VMC with hospital staff that appears in his campaign ads in area community newspapers? This and other uses of publicly-owned facilities and public personnel for campaign purposes are under investigation by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. The ad itself is under additional scrutiny since several of the medical professionals whose names appear in it allegedly were unaware that their names were being used. Dr. Lawrence Dell Isola, who is listed as a Miller endorser, said, “I have not actively endorsed a candidate.” He did say that his medical practice group may have endorsed Miller, and he speculated that this was how his name became involved. He added that he didn’t object. Dr. Michael Mena said that his medical practice group’s president had endorsed Miller as well as contributed to his campaign, but that he was neutral in the race. VMC has also received recent attention for a secretive $1.73 million special retirement payment to Roodman. The payment and the process by which it was made came under strong criticism from the Washington State Auditor in a controversial draft performance audit. Reached by telephone, Miller refused comment saying, “I have no interest in providing you with any information whatsoever.” He then hung up. According to PDC records, Miller, a banker, had raised $58,585.00 in cash contributions as of October 19. He’s spent just one-third of that despite the election being less than three weeks away.
Miller’s challenger, Heide, a vascular neurologist and former VMC employee, has raised a scant $30 from one contributor. He has nearly $3,500 in in-kind contributions, all out of his own pocket, for campaign signs and the like. According to PDC reports, Miller has no in-kind contributions. A review of Miller’s contributors shows that most of them have financial ties to VMC. The list is top-heavy with contributions from specialty practice groups, hospital employees, and organizations and people who do business with VMC. Few, if any, look to be ordinary citizens with no financial ties to the hospital. Valley Radiologists of Federal Way contributed $12,000 and Valley Anesthesia Associates of Bellevue contributed $10,000 in two separate contributions each. D.W. Harper Group of Santa Ana, Calif., an insurance brokerage firm that specializes in risk management for health care organizations, made two contributions totaling $4,500, the most recent being for $2,500 on October 16. A call to the firm’s president, David Harper, asking for comment has not been returned. In addition to refusing comment on his campaign, Miller has also refused to debate his opponent. He cancelled one scheduled joint appearance with Heide, and he has refused to re-schedule. According to the Heide campaign, Miller’s refusal was because he was “too busy.” This sparked a protest last week across the street from VMC by two Heide supporters, one of whom was dressed in a chicken suit and held a sign that said, “Mike Miller chickened out of the debate!” The other protester, Bernadette Rice, passed out literature in support of Heide and write-in candidate Cory Cappelletti, a Renton Fire Department employee, who is opposing incumbent board member Carolyn Parnell. Rice works as Heide’s office manager but stressed that she was doing this on her own time and of her own volition. While she has known Heide for three years, she’s lived in the hospital district for decades, and she’s had it with the board’s lack of openness and transparency. Addressing herself to Miller she said, “If you’re going to run for office, you need to be available to answer questions.” “If Mike Miller refuses to follow through with a debate, what else will he chicken out on?” Rice’s frustration was echoed by Cappelletti, a second-generation Renton resident. “Valley is a model of how not to let the public know what’s going on” he said. For him, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the $1.73 million payment to Roodman, who is still on the VMC payroll. Disclosure of the payment and its amount came only after the Washington State Auditor conducted a performance audit of VMC and two other public hospital districts. A draft of the
audit was highly critical of the payment and other executive compensation perks accorded to Roodman as well as VMC’s lack of transparency generally. The draft recommended that VMC avoid similar payments in the future. It also questioned whether bonuses paid to Roodman were for attaining improved performance goals or for what it called “typical CEO duties and responsibilities.” It also said, “Valley may be paying near maximum payouts for performance that has not significantly increased year over year.” Board Chair Don Jacobson, a retired union business agent, disputed the findings. He also criticized the State Auditor’s Office for making the draft public. “They violated their procedures by leaking the draft,” he said. Board member Anthony Hemstad is incensed at the payment and its timing. “In tight financial times, for this commission to be making our public hospital CEO the highest paid public official in the state is ridiculous,” he said. “We have a duty to be prioritizing funds to actually provide health care, not paying huge CEO salaries and ‘retirement’ bonuses five years before the CEO retires. This was neither transparent nor a good use of public funds.” Heide agreed. Patient care should be at the top of VMC’s agenda, not what the CEO gets paid, he said. “Focus more energy to retain good nurses than an over-paid CEO.” “Nursing ratios are being cut, other skilled positions are being cut, and he’s taking millions,” Heide said referring to Roodman. “How does that improve patient care?” The payment has also been condemned by the union representing skilled hospital technicians. During Roodman’s tenure as CEO, political controversy has been no stranger to VMC. In 2005, the hospital district floated what was described as an “emergency” tax-increase measure that raised district property taxes 50 cents per thousand dollars of valuation. No voters’ pamphlet was issued for the election. In 2006, an annexation proposal that would have nearly doubled the size of the district was put on the ballot much in the same way as the 2005 tax increase, again without a voters’ pamphlet. Barely five weeks before the election, area citizens got wind of it and organized an opposition campaign. A misleading ballot title that failed to mention annexation would result in a large tax increase to property owners in the proposed annexation area became the subject of a court challenge. A judge ordered the ballot title changed to include tax-increase language. The measure was crushed at the polls by a 94 percent “no” vote. In 2007, the PDC settled a lengthy complaint against the district that alleged the 2005 and 2006 campaigns were illegally financed with public funds. In what was perhaps the largest fine against an individual in the history of the PDC, CEO Roodman was ordered to pay $195,000, with
$75,000 suspended so long as the fine wasn’t paid with public funds and that he committed no similar violations for the next four years. VMC’s insurance company paid the fine. While VMC officials continue to deny any wrongdoing, PDC documents contain a detailed list of individual infractions and the amounts of money involved. The May 2007 staff report concluded with a recommendation that the matter be referred to the Attorney General’s office for further action because “the remedies available to the Commission are insufficient given the number and significance of the apparent violations.” According to a source within the hospital, VMC ran up close to $200,000 in legal fees fighting the PDC complaint and an additional $100,000 fighting one filed by a citizen. It was only when faced with referral to the Attorney General for possible criminal action did the district settle. The citizen-initiated complaint was dismissed by the PDC. The PDC reached the settlement with VMC and Roodman in October 2007, just prior to the November general election. Running for re-election were board members Gary Kohlwes and Carole Anderson. Both were defeated by reform candidates, Sue Bowman and Hemstad. In what may be a foreshadowing of Miller’s race against Heide, Kohlwes ran a well-financed campaign – he had nearly $31,000 in the bank – against a challenger who reported no cash contributions. Anderson and Hemstad were financially evenly matched, with each having around $31,000. In December 2007, the board amended Roodman’s employment contract to provide the enhanced retirement benefit if he stayed on the payroll until he reached 60. The board claimed that this was to encourage him to remain. No dollar figure was mentioned, and according to the board minutes, it appears that much of the discussion surrounding the retirement benefit took place in executive session, which was closed to the public. The draft audit criticized VMC’s rationale and questioned whether it made sense to provide an incentive to someone with a long tenure – Roodman joined the hospital in 1983 – in a tenuous economic environment. In 2008, the board implemented an ethics code that dissident member Hemstad regarded as an attempt to stifle robust debate and prevent public disclosure of information that might be embarrassing to the board. The code came in for strong criticism in a Seattle Times op-ed from a bi-partisan trio of local elected officials. It was also analyzed by William Maurer, the executive director of the Seattle office of the Institute for Justice, a nationwide public-interest law firm that represents litigants in free speech cases. Maurer wrote that some provisions of the code “are prior restraints on speech and are contentbased and vague.”
Hemstad tried to get the board to revise the code to take Maurerâ€™s analysis into account, but his effort was rebuffed. In February 2009, payment of the $1.73 million retirement benefit was authorized by a vote of the board, but still without mention of a dollar figure. Hemstad voted against the measure. Roodman remains on the payroll. Ballots for the Miller-Heide race have been mailed to King County voters.