There LL was, minding her own business, flipping through the filings at the D.C. Superior Court Civil Action Division, and wham! Suddenly she was smack in the middle of the D.C. General Hospital reform opponents’ argument about the shaky financial history of Greater Southeast Community Hospital and its new parent company, Doctors Community Healthcare Corp.
Unless there is further congressional interventionwhich some irate D.C. councilmembers have privately requested of Rep. Connie Morella, Maryland Republican and chair of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, and Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican and chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the DistrictD.C. General, as everyone now knows it, will cease to exist next month. Still, given what LL discovered, the D.C. financial control board and the city government had better closely scrutinize the fiscal operations over at Greater Southeast. The hospital still can’t seem to pay its billseven the small ones.
Servicemaster Healthcare Management Services, based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., filed a lawsuit in January in Superior Court against Greater Southeast and Doctors, charging that they owe Servicemaster $72,211 for goods and services provided between January and April 2000. The company is being represented by local attorney Neil L. Henrichsen. A stack of unpaid invoices is attached to the court documents, including a bill for $369 worth of toilet paper and $1,103.52 for can liners.
Henrichsen says Servicemaster was told that Doctors didn’t have any problems with the company but that hospital officials wanted to switch to another contractor.
“Servicemaster has written letters, but they have gotten no satisfaction,” says Henrichsen. “The money is due and owing, and they should have paid it.”
But when LL called Greater Southeast last week, the company had a bad case of amnesia. Spokesperson Donna Lewis Johnson initially told LL that the bill was charged up and left unpaid by Greater Southeast’s previous ownerswhich might have worked as an excuse, because that crew couldn’t pay its bills, either; Greater Southeast’s previous owners fell $70 million in debt, filed for bankruptcy protection, and were subsequently rescued by Doctors, which purchased the hospital for a bargain $30 million.
LL gave Johnson the case number and assured her that the lawsuit indeed names Doctorswhich means that the money couldn’t be owed by the previous group. Still, there wasn’t a cogent response from Greater Southeast. Last Friday, Johnson told LL that Servicemaster and Doctors had reached a settlement regarding the account “months ago.” That seemed unlikely, LL replied, because the lawsuit was so fresh the file hadn’t yet found a permanent home on the shelf at Superior Court. Twenty minutes later, Johnson called LL yet again, leaving this inexplicable message: “There is no lawsuit that we’re aware of.”
The folks at Greater Southeast and Doctors appear to be New Age creative-visualization acolytes who believe that if they just close their eyes, meditate, and imagine they are debt-free, their bills will magically disappear, and there won’t be any red ink, lawsuits, or annoying journalists wanting to know why a company that is proposing to take over the operation of the city’s only public hospital to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars can’t muster $72,000 to clear its account with a company that already has provided the contracted services.
Who knows what will happen? Maybe Part 2 of the fiscal rescue plan for Greater Southeast and Doctors is their pending health-care contract with the District. One thing seems certain: Servicemaster had better not hold its breath waiting to be paid.
In early November last year, Mayor Anthony A. Williams sponsored a fundraiser at Tony Cheng’s restaurant in downtown D.C. Williams’ deputy chief of staff, Mark A. Jones, helped coordinate the event, which tapped the wallets of Asian business leaders and political activists. The money from the fundraiser was supposed to go into the coffers of the D.C. Democratic State Committee (DSC), the apparatus that pushes the Democratic agenda in the District and represents local Democrats’ interests in the national party machine.
Over the past two years, according to some members of the executive committee, who spoke to LL on the condition their names not be used, the DSC has swirled in organizational and fiscal chaos, fueled mostly by infighting and inept leadership. Now, questions are being raised about what happened to the money from the November event. Sources say that more than $20,000 was raised but that $4,000 remains unaccounted for.
“Where’s the money?” asks one executive-committee member. “There were money orders, traveler’s checks, and people just don’t know what happened.”
“There was about $4,000 in checks that had been written out to the mayor,” says another source, explaining that the checks were to be rewritten to the state committee and returned. “[But] they haven’t. It could just be something innocent. But that’s what people are upset about.”
Norman Neverson, chair of the DSC, says he doesn’t know exactly how much was collected but puts the range at somewhere between $18,000 and $23,000. “I personally did not count the money,” Neverson says, adding that Frank Wilds, who chairs the group of chairpersons for all the DSC’s subcommittees, “undertook that responsibility.”
Wilds says he turned $18,825 over to Robert Artisst Sr., the committee’s treasurer. He says some checks were returned to Cheng because they were made out to Friends of the Mayor. “We couldn’t deposit them. We gave them back to Tony [Cheng]; he was supposed to have people rewrite them and give them back to us. But we never got them back.”
Wilds says he had nothing else to do with accounting for donations from the Cheng event after dropping the money off with Artisst. But he says he has raised “questions about the financial statements of the party.”
Artisst confirms that Wilds delivered the proceeds from the fundraiser to his Ward 5 home; Artisst says he did not attend the event. “There were about a half-dozen postal money orders; I didn’t see any traveler’s checks. If there were any traveler’s checks, we weren’t the recipient of them.
“I understand there were some checks I never received that were made out to the Friends of Tony Williams,” Artisst continues. “They had to go back. I got word that there was more money forthcoming, but I have not received any of it to date.”
Neverson told LL that he was “not familiar with any returned checks.”
Artisst says that he filed a report, as required, with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. That report, he says, provides all the information about donations received from the Cheng fundraiser. But a review of the DSC’s “Report of Receipts and Expenditures for Candidate or Political Committee” only adds to the confusion. The initial filing, covering June 11, 2000, through Jan. 31, 2001, indicates that the committee’s total receipts for that period were $17,525, including membership dues and other donations. However, an attached “balance sheet” dated Nov. 9, 2000, states that the amount raised from the fundraiser was $18,817.42. An itemized list of the exact amounts paid by each contributor, also attached to the report, indicates a “grand total” of $19,775.
An amended report, signed, once again, by Artisst, and filed on Feb. 12, 2001, fails to clear up the discrepancies, however. The amended report covers October through December 2000, and total receipts reported are $42,969.98. The “balance sheet” and “mayoral fundraiser” attachments have been removed.
The financial issues serve as the backdrop for growing questions and concerns about the current leadership of the state committee. “[The leaders] don’t inspire,” says yet another source. “They use their position of authority to destroy, dismantle, and get back or take revenge.”
Neverson was elected last year to head the state committee. In 1999, he became chair of the Ward 4 Democratic organization, following a contentious election in which the previous officers refused to seat him and others elected on his slate. Sources say that Neverson is once again under fire in Ward 4 because many active members are not satisfied with his handling of affairs. The next election of officers will take place in June, and there are reports that he may be in trouble.
“The lines of divisiveness that came about in the 1999 election have not been healed,” explains Neverson, who notes that he is not worried about his re-election. “The people decide who they want to lead them.”
GROWING UP, STANDING UP, AND THROWING UP
The annual battle between the executive and legislative branches over funding and public policy priorities began in earnest this week, when Williams released his proposed budget and financial plan for fiscal 2002. The D.C. Council already has begun to scrutinize the $5.3 billion plan, and not surprisingly, the first committee to hold public hearings is Mayor-in-Wanting Kevin Chavous’ Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation.
The council and the mayor have 60 days to finalize the document before submitting it to Congress, where it will be further scrutinized, although Knollenberg has promised not to follow that body’s traditional ritual of tacking on social riders that reflect the Republican Party’s agenda.
Although the Williams administration calls the proposed budget “fiscally conservative,” there is no doubt it was designed to provide a platform for the mayor’s re-election bid. He appears to be targeting residents east of the Anacostia River as well as those low-income citizens throughout the city caught in the squeeze of the District’s escalating real estate market. Further, by incorporating measures to address some of the pet issues and concerns expressed by councilmembers in private meetings with mayoral staff, Williams is hoping to court legislators while reducing the rancor that has accompanied past budget deliberations.
The budget continues the mayor’s trend, begun last year when he dubbed himself the “Education Mayor,” of adding millions of dollars to the school system’s operating budget. This year, he includes some new money for operations, but the most sizable increase is in the capital budget, where the mayor has placed $174 million to renovate and build new schools. Senior citizens in Anacostia, a dependable voting population, will get an $8 million wellness center from capital improvement funds. The proposed budget increases the earned-income tax credit for low-income residents who were left on the sidelines two years ago by the tax cut pushed through by the council for businesses and the middle class. Councilmembers introduced the tax-credit concept last year, and it remains a favorite of theirs, giving the mayor a twofer: brownie points with legislators and with the poor. And the budget provides new spending to help stabilize the affordable housing stock in the District.
It will be hard for councilmembers, several of whom will be looking to construct their own re-election platforms, to dismiss many of Williams’ proposals. At the same time, attaching themselves to his initiatives could undermine their own efforts to claim any real territory for themselves to cite in their own campaign literature.
On Monday, when Williams released his budget, the smiling and praise heaped on the executive by councilmembers, including Nemesis of Tony David Catania, were unprecedented. During the last two budget cycles, the clashes between the mayor and the council have turned nasty, and their differences have seemed insurmountable. The result has been that the control board has played referee. But the board, which will disband on Sept. 30, has indicated that it will henceforth refrain from intervening, leaving the mayor and council to work through any differences and develop a consensus budget. Although at first glance it may seem that there will be few clashes, LL isn’t betting next month’s rent. As a couple of lawmakers, including Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose and Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, noted, “The devil is in the details,” and those smiling councilmembers on Monday morning hadn’t drilled down into the specifics of the document.
The tenor of the budget discourse over the next two months will prove whether the council has grown up, and willing to make the hard choices that are in the best interests of the District’s long-term future. It also will prove whether the mayor is willing to stand up, refusing to be intimidated when lawmakers make politically popular but fiscally irresponsible choices. In the end, however, the budget debate may just leave LL and other residents ready to throw up, watching the selfish interests of politicians override the needs of the people they are supposed to be serving. Jonetta Rose Barras
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, x 454, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.