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What are two things a long-troubled safety-net hospital in one of the poorest parts of the city doesn’t need?

Try a power struggle over who runs the damn thing between politically powerful officials and a widely disliked board chairman. That’s the current state of affairs at United Medical Center on Southern Avenue, a hospital that’s been through two bankruptcies, a near-collapse, and a foreclosure in recent years.

It’s a situation that several hospital board members and senior staffers say is on course for disaster unless changes are made. It also presents a sticky problem for Mayor Vince Gray, who can ill afford to have a hospital melt down under his watch.

On the macro level, the struggle over who’s controlling the hospital is between Chief Financial Officer Nat Gandhi and Councilmember David Catania, a pair who’ve had one of the hottest burning feuds in city government.

Gandhi has made it clear that the District shouldn’t be in the hospital business and should sell UMC as soon as possible, lest it threaten the city’s bond rating.

Meanwhile, turning the hospital into a reasonably functioning entity has been Catania’s raison d’être for several years. In his mind, a city that can shell out big bucks for a convention center or a baseball stadium can spare a few million to keep a hospital for poor people running until it can be sold to a network like MedStar.

The fight between the two hasn’t been pretty. Catania charges Gandhi with “intentionally” trying to sabotage the hospital by any number of means and recently accused Gandhi (to his face) of hating poor people.

“I believe he should be ashamed of himself,” says Catania.

Gandhi says he’s just reporting what the hospital’s numbers really show, as required by law, and getting Catania’s barbs as thanks. “As someone who grew up in a village in India with little or no adequate medical or dental care, I am very concerned about the city providing quality medical care to all of our residents,” Gandhi says in a statement to LL.

In any event, staff and hospital board members say UMC is unfairly bearing the brunt of this feud. “Sometimes we feel like a political ping-pong ball,” says one senior hospital official.

The roots of Gandhi and Catania’s fighting over the hospital are deep. In 2007, when Catania engineered the sale of the hospital, then known as Greater Southeast Community Hospital, to Specialty Hospitals of America with the help of about $80 million in District funds,Gandhi warned against the deal. Last year, when the District foreclosed on Specialty and took over the hospital, Gandhi predicted the deal could result in a “negative impact” for taxpayers.

Since the takeover, the 354-bed hospital, with an operating budget of about $115 million a year, hasn’t been a drain on the city’s budget, thanks to a larger share of federal funding set aside for hospitals that serve the uninsured. But the CFO’s office warns that the hospital’s financial health is still weak, and that Catania’s plans to align the hospital with a large network are wildly unrealistic.

Further complicating matters is Gray’s pick to be chairman of the hospital’s board, Bishop Charles Matthew Hudson Jr., the head of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Ward 8.

Hudson is a former Navy chaplain and Pennsylvania native who punctuates his sentences with a drawn out “wow.” Close watchers of D.C. politics may remember that after Councilmember Marion Barry was censured by his colleagues last year for steering city funds to his special lady friend, Barry went to Hudson’s church to be anointed in oil and forgiven.

“Don’t you think you can be the councilman of east of the river Ward 8 and not get in trouble,” said Hudson at the time. “Let me tell you, the position is trouble.”

Also trouble, according to several board members, is Hudson as chairman of the hospital’s board. From the get-go, they say, Hudson has mistakenly thought he’s supposed to be running the hospital, as opposed to guiding its policy.

Early on, Hudson referred to himself as UMC’s “general manager,” according to several sources. More recently, he’s tried to negotiate a lease and freeze hiring on his own.

“The board is essentially dysfunctional because of the antics of the chairman,” says one senior hospital official who asked not to be quoted by name because it might affect his employment. “The bishop has no clue as to what’s going on here.”

Virgil McDonald, a board member appointed by Gray, put it a bit more diplomatically: “We are definitely having some growing pains. I think what [Hudson] is doing is showing a lack of understanding of how the board operates.”

Hudson says he hasn’t overstepped his bounds, and that he’s trying only to restore balance to a hospital that’s been negatively influenced by an “outside force.”

“I think David Catania is running the hospital,” says Hudson.

Gray appointed Hudson to the board in March at Barry’s request, according to several Wilson Building sources. (A spokeswoman for the mayor says she’s “not sure if this is true.”)

But Hudson disputes that he’s Barry’s man, and says he was likely picked because of his background in development and dedication to serving the city’s poor. In addition to preaching, Hudson is director of Matthews Memorial Housing, a nonprofit that’s managing an affordable-housing construction project in Barry Farm. The city is slated to put more than $6 million towards the development.

Records show Hudson makes a comfortable living in service of the poor, having earned more than $170,000 in 2008. He also drives a $90,000 Mercedes and owns a home in suburban Fauquier County that he bought for $530,000 in 2006. (Hudson says he lives at a church-owned home in Ward 8.)

Several board members say they’ve voiced their displeasure with Hudson to members of the mayor’s staff, who met with Hudson to get him to tone it down. Gray’s senior aides, including Chief of Staff Paul Quander, have also shown up to a couple of board meetings.

But Hudson says his marching orders remain the same: to ask the hard questions about an institution that’s long been mismanaged. One of those questions, Hudson says, is why some of the people who worked for the hospital’s previous owner are still running the place.

“The real problem is that it’s been mismanaged, over and over and over again. Wow,” says Hudson.

As for the complaints from other board members, Hudson says that’s an indication that he’s doing something right.

“If you’re a leader and everyone is happy with you, you’re not really leading,” says Hudson. “As far as getting along with people, I can’t say that’s my interest—because it’s not.”

The big question is whether Gray feels the same way. (His office played coy when asked about Hudson’s future.) Catania says he plans to ask Gray to ditch Hudson, and one senior hospital staff member says many of UMC’s doctors and nurses are also keen to see him go. One of Gray’s biggest difficulties early in his administration has been putting his trust in the wrong people. Getting rid of Hudson would be a tacit acknowledgment that he made yet another personnel mistake. Of course, if things implode at UMC, that would be an even bigger acknowledgment of woe.

* * *

BAD HOMEWORK

One of the smaller mysteries surrounding Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.’s recent legal troubles—he just agreed to repay the city $300,000 in questionable expenditures by his nonprofit and is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office—is just how cooperative the councilmember was once a new sheriff rode into town.

Shortly before former Attorney General Peter Nickles’ reign as de facto mayor ended last year, he secured a court ruling forcing Thomas to provide financial details of the donors and expenses of his nonprofit Team Thomas.

The court ordered the responses turned over in early January, after Nickles’ replacement Irv Nathan took over. Silent Irv wouldn’t even tell reporters whether Thomas had complied.

Turns out, Thomas did comply—barely. Thomas’ response, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, has the feel of a homework assignment done just before the bell rings.

Asked to provide the names of Team Thomas donors who’d given more than $250, Thomas replied, through his attorney Fred Cooke Jr., that Team Thomas wasn’t of the opinion that it needed to keep records of such things. It then listed only seven donors, without saying how much they gave. When Nathan sued Thomas this summer, the complaint listed more than 30 donors who’d given $1,000 or more. (Cooke didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Thomas was also asked to list expenses over $250. He said he didn’t have information about checks Team Thomas had written, but then included an incomplete transcription of Team Thomas’ debit-card purchase records. Some of the items Thomas didn’t put on the list include a $366.22 bill at a Marriott resort and spa, $350 for a Maryland-based animal trapper, and a $2,977.34 bill at Walmart three days before Christmas, which are documented in bank records LL obtained earlier. The omissions appear to have been motivated by sloppiness, rather than by a desire to obscure questionable spending, because the list Thomas provided contains plenty of eyebrow-raising expenses. One example: the $1,074.40 Thomas put on Team Thomas’ card at the car dealer where he allegedly bought his Audi SUV with city funds. Thomas labeled that expense “miscellaneous.”

It’s worth noting that when questions about Team Thomas first came up last year, Thomas promised to release a full disclosure of donors and expenses. That hasn’t happened.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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