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The Commission on Mental Health Services may distribute those little white cups filled with anti-psychotic meds. But cold, hard cash is the drug of choice for the agency’s court-appointed receiver and his minions, many of whom were or continue to be affiliated with the group of lawyers and advocates who initially fought to reform mental health services in the city.
Dennis R. Jones and his senior-level staff haven’t quite rescued the city’s mentally ill, but they appear to be doing a bang-up job bolstering their careers and savings accounts.
Jones was selected by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and appointed transitional receiver by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan earlier this year, following the tumultuous tenure of Scott Nelson. Jones’ job is to ease the way for the city to regain control, by next April, of the Commission on Mental Health Services, which went into receivership in 1997. The agency has been under federal court order since the mid-’70s, when a class-action lawsuit on behalf of poorly served mentally ill patients was filed. The group of pro bono lawyers and mental health advocates who brought the suit, many working as volunteers or as representatives of established mental health organizations, came to be known as the Dixon Implementation Monitoring Committee, or Dixon Committee for shortnamed for the lead plaintiff in the suit, William Dixon. In the ’80s, the Dixon Committee began an even more aggressive push, to get patients out of St. Elizabeths Hospital and into less restrictive, community-based treatment facilities.
Everyone saw the Dixon Committee as a righteous group, with a deep, abiding interest in the care of mentally ill citizens. But now Jones and his crew are no longer satisfied with gold stars; they are raking in the dough, proving that charitable work, if effectively parlayed, can be just as profitable to the do-gooders as to the people targeted for assistance.
As transitional receiver, Jones is paid $195 an hour, with an annual cap of $224,640. Prior to assuming that job, he served as a mental health consultant in Texas and Indiana. He’s not working full time in the District; he is also the executive director of the mental health center at the University of Indiana Medical Center in Indianapolis.
Day-to-day operations of the commission are in the hands of Elizabeth Jones (not related to the receiver). A former staffer and then member of the Dixon Committee, Jones came to serve the city during Nelson’s tenure as administrator at St. Elizabeths. When Nelson was booted, Jones took over as acting chief operating officer (COO). She played a major role in the selection of her good buddy Dennis Jones, whom she knew from his previous work as a Dixon Committee consultant.
“[Dennis Jones] was our first choice [for receiver, in 1997], but he couldn’t come. Scott Nelson was hired instead,” said Elizabeth Jones, who was a Dixon Committee member when the first receiver was selected. Jones spoke to LL during a recent interview together with Dennis Jones; the two detailed plans for the commission and responded to charges leveled against them by an array of middle managers who spoke to LL on condition of anonymity.
As a favor to Dennis Jones, Elizabeth Jones promised that she would remain as acting COO, but only if she could apply for the permanent position. And why not? Hadn’t she done right by her mental health ally?
A national search and screening committee reviewed the applications of other COO hopefuls, interviewing eight people. Guess who was selected? Today, Elizabeth Jones is the commission’s permanent COO, poised to move up the food chain in a few months, when the agency returns to District control. She receives an annual salary of $125,000. LL loves it when a plan comes together.
But the two Joneses are willing to pass the cash aroundas long as it’s to members of their own crew. Richard Warsh, a former staffer to a former Dixon Committee member, serves as Dennis Jones’ chief of staff, earning $115,000 per year. Judith McTiernan, referred by a contractor with ties to Dennis Jones, collects $120,000 as interim director of St. ElizabethsElizabeth Jones’ old job. Then there are the contractors. The Tiverton Group, with which Dennis Jones has worked before, already has been paid $727,000 to help plan a redesign of the St. Elizabeths operation and to train employees. The Technical Assistance Collaborative has collected $549,000; it is developing new standards by which service providers will be selected after the commission is turned back to the District. Commission officials say they can apply for federal reimbursement of up to half of the costs for the Technical Assistance contract. Nevertheless, both contracts were awarded without the benefit of a competitive bidding process. Dennis Jones said these moves were necessary because, with only a year to implement changes, he did not have enough time to follow normal procurement procedures. He said he was familiar with the work of both contractors and specifically sought them out.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson gave preliminary approval to Dennis Jones’ transition plan, which calls for the creation of a new mental health authority. Currently, the Commission on Mental Health Services handles administrative functions and provides services to mentally ill residents. Under the new plan, the new authority would assume the administrative responsibilities of the agency, and a new receiver-created organization would assume many of the services currently provided by the agency. When it came time to award service contracts, that new organization, we can assume, would have an advantage over existing nonprofit and for-profit groups that have been providing services to the mentally ill.
Earlier this year, a similar scheme came under public scrutiny. According to a report in the Washington Post, Ronald M. Shansky, former federal receiver of medical and mental health services for the D.C. Jail, created the nonprofit Center for Correctional Health & Policy Studies (CCHPS). He appointed his longtime friend Stanley T. Harper to head the operation and used former employees of the D.C. Jail to staff it. The group received a contract for $12.6 million. Published reports describe Shansky as bid writer, procurement judge, and appeal authority. Although he disputed charges that there had been any special treatment or conflict of interest.
Jones, Jones & Co. appear to be reading from the same playbook. Before it is all over, expect the former Dixonites to morph into the new mental health authority and the new service organization, fueled by a multi-million-dollar contract.
Commission workers, alarmed at the machinations of this old-boy network, are understandably screaming for helpand pointing to the fact that Jones, Jones & Co. are all white.
“Ninety-nine percent of the service population is black, and 90 to 95 percent of the current staff is black,” says one manager, who asked not to be identified. “But there is no black in the current administration. You mean they can’t find one black person?”
Employees say they also are concerned that they have had little or no input into the receiver’s transitional plan. They say, too, that representatives from the community have not been allowed to contribute significantly to the plan. Managers who spoke to LL say they have been kept in the dark.
“We don’t know who is on the transition team,” notes one manager. “We have had limited access to the receiver and his teamand almost no access to Grace Lopes,” whom Williams hired last year to help the city reclaim the agencies operated by court-appointed receivers.
Elizabeth Jones says Commission on Mental Health Services officials are “very sensitive” to the need for diversity. She says there will be forums in January for employees and the community to comment on the transitional plan. But even before the workers and the public can offer their input, the officials have already begun preliminary implementation of the plan. As soon as next week, the transitional receiver is poised to offer some employees an early-retirement program to help reduce the size of the commission’s labor force. Can you think of a better way to eliminate the opposition? If the retirement package, which may include cash incentives of up to $25,000, doesn’t achieve the desired results, then some employees could find pink slips on their desks.
And here LL thought bringing public agencies out of receivership would benefit District workers and residents. Even she can be kinda naive. Jonetta Rose Barras
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