Thursday, March 1, 2007

Too Many Hands In The Cookie Jar.

In Our Opinion...


We were not surprised by word several days ago that federal investigators had subpoenaed the financial records of the Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla. The investigation is being conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. We are told it is probing into no fewer than three dozen different areas of financial concern, including healthcare fraud, possible kickbacks, rental agreements, and other financial arrangements entered into with doctors, and other healthcare professionals, as well as non-healthcare contractors.

The information subpoenaed goes back only ten years to January 1997, which suggests possible criminal implications, given the ten-year statute of limitations imposed even upon the Internal Revenue Service in cases involving suspected tax fraud. In 1997 the Medical Center was still under the direct control of Westchester County Government, becoming an independent corporate entity the following year as the reins of County government were handed over to the Spano Administration by outgoing Republican County Executive Andy O’Rourke.

In the years following that turnover the Westchester Medical Center has seemingly suffered from one financially catastrophic problem after another; at points forced to lay-off hundreds of professional and non-professional staff in order to meet payroll and other financial obligations, while managing to avoid bankruptcy. To its credit, and the credit of its dedicated professional staff, despite massive staff cutbacks and financial shortfalls, the quality of care remained essentially undiminished. Nevertheless, by 2004, a new Chairman of the Board of Directors and several new board members had been appointed, and Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Marilyn Slaaten, had resigned amidst charges and allegations of mismanagement and incompetence.
Slaaten, previously with the Westchester County Attorney’s Office, and accustomed to earning more than $200,000 with the hospital, had barely cleared out her desk when DA Jeanine Pirro hired her to be a top-level Deputy District Attorney at $115,000. At the time there was considerable grumbling in the ranks by assistant DAs who had been passed over by Pirro in her rush to soften Slaaten’s fall from power. Many openly complained that she possessed no prosecutorial experience, and should not have been put above numerous experienced, seasoned attorneys in the office.

Of course, Mrs. Pirro was not particularly concerned about the reaction to the Slaaten appointment, either from within, or from outside of the office. Since when had Jeanine ever been accountable to anyone, at any time? However, although the appointment may have seemed, to many, to have been without justification, or particular benefit to the District Attorney’s Office, it was not without motive or purpose. Those who had followed theexploits of the “Power Couple,” Al and Jeanine Pirro, closely enough, knew that Slaaten’s seemingly inappropriate appointment was merely ‘payback time.’

For many years, until publicly exposed in The Jeanine Machine, published in 2002, Al Pirro was paid an annual $200,000 retainer, as a lobbyist, by the Westchester Medical Center. Additionally, Mr. Pirro, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, somehow acquired the parking concession at the hospital, which he operated for many years, and ultimately sold for several million dollars.

In light of the above, certain questions may reasonably be put forward. For instance, “What exactly did Mr. Pirro, husband of the District Attorney, do as a lobbyist for the hospital, that justified their paying him a $200,000 retainer per year, for many years?” Surely, it wasn’t his ability to bring new business, open new markets for their services, given the distressing financial condition the institution found itself in despite his employment. Then again, perhaps his lobbying services did come in handy on two occasions, when three adult female patients, including well-known columnist Betty Graham, rapidly died of staff infection, and when a sixyear- old patient was crushed to death by a metal canister in the MRI room, and no criminal negligence was seriously investigated or found by Mrs. Pirro. Perhaps Al’s most important lobbying effort was across the breakfast table.

Hopefully, federal investigators will conduct a thorough and comprehensive probe, and will determine, whether or not, the Westchester County Medical Center, a “World Class Hospital, Not A World Away,” was also a World Class Cash Cow.

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