And, DeHart added, blame for the scandal should include outside auditors, who failed to raise any objections when Abbate wrote dozens of checks to herself for “community development” — a department that regularly generated an enormous amount of “abnormal activity.” DeHart said he told auditors he suspected something was amiss in the community development department.
“The external auditors had to have known about this,” DeHart said, “because I laid it out to them in plain view. I did not hide anything.”
Employees of the health clinic were told about the firings and resignations at about 2 p.m. Friday in an email in which Rabinowitz called Abbate’s actions “reprehensible.” He said she was terminated “based on substantial and overwhelming evidence that Ms. Abbate abused her position and broke a sacred trust by misappropriating MBCHC funds over the past four years.”
“It is profoundly shocking and disappointing that something like this could occur,” Rabinowitz wrote. “People in this community trust us to have their best interests at heart,” he said, adding the executives “shattered that trust.”
Headquartered on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami, the Miami Beach Community Health Center is one of the oldest and most well-respected public health clinics in Florida. It opened more than three decades ago, and now includes four locations, three on the Beach, including two sites that care for people with mental illness. The center employs more than 280 people, with a monthly payroll of around $1.2 million.
The health center’s annual budget is about $36 million — about one-third of which comes from private insurance, Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance for needy people, Medicare, the federal insurer for elders, and private payments.
Matthew Freedus, a Washington-based healthcare attorney who is helping the center sort out the mess, said investigators have found no evidence so far that doctors or administrators at the center engaged in any improper billings to private or government insurers.
Abbate, a licensed practical nurse since 1976, became the health center’s chief operating officer in July 1998, and was elevated to executive director four years later.
In an interview with The Herald’s editorial board in 2007, Abbate said her background as a nurse propelled her into the world of healthcare for the needy. “People know if you care, especially people in dire situations with no money who are extremely ill,” she said. “I really have a passion for it because I’ve been poor.”
When the health center’s authorities were alerted to financial irregularities in May, Rabinowitz said, they discovered Abbate was receiving $41,500 in salary twice each month; she had told the center’s human resources director the payments — lump sums of accrued vacation time — had been approved by a board member. Abbate also had been writing checks for $2,000 to $5,000 to herself regularly, and had convinced other clinic administrators, including DeHart, to cash checks written to them, Rabinowitz said. Investigators are looking into whether all of those proceeds went to Abbate or if the other employees received a share.
“My comment was: She couldn’t live long enough to accumulate that much vacation time,” Rabinowitz said of the more than $80,000 Abbate received each month in so-called vacation benefits.