Jackson board member resigns amid accusations of ethics violations

05/21/2013 10:24 AM

05/21/2013 4:27 PM

A member of the board that runs Jackson Health System resigned Tuesday rather than face censure from the Miami-Dade ethics commission, following a months-long investigation into complaints by hospital employees that he was abusive to them as he tried to negotiate settlements for unpaid bills owed by his law firm’s clients.

Stephen Nuell, a member of the Financial Recovery Board appointed to help turn around the taxpayer-owned hospital system, avoided the likelihood that ethics commissioners would find probable cause that he violated three sections of the county’s Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance.Nuell, 58, settled the case by pleading no contest to two of three counts against him. He admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to pay a fine of $1,500 within 15 days.

In return, the ethics commission dropped the third count against Nuell — that he exploited his official position — and required him to either resign his post or seek a formal opinion from the quasi-judicial panel regarding his continued service on the Jackson board.

Nuell submitted his letter of resignation, effective on June 1, on Tuesday morning before the ethics commission met.

In his letter, Nuell said he felt it was time for the board that runs the county’s safety net hospital system to receive some “fresh perspective.”

“I believe it is vital to balance continuity with change,” Nuell said in the letter addressed to board chairman Marcos Lapciuc.

“The challenges that remain ahead for Jackson are substantial,” Nuell wrote, “and we must constantly be developing a new class of leaders who can preserve its legacy and chart a course to its best future.”

Nuell did not attend Tuesday’s ethics commission meeting, but he was represented by Israel Reyes, a Miami criminal defense attorney.

After ethics commissioners approved the settlement, Reyes said Nuell had reached the resolution he wanted.

“He was keeping the best interests of Jackson Health System at heart,’’ Reyes said.

Nuell also saved Miami-Dade commissioners a potential headache.

They were scheduled to reappoint Nuell to the hospital board Tuesday — the same day the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust heard Nuell’s case during a closed session.

Instead, because of Nuell’s resignation, Miami-Dade commissioners approved the reappointment of only six of the seven nominees to the Financial Recovery Board that has run Jackson during the financial crisis that nearly bankrupted the hospital system in 2011. The board will revert to its previous name, the Public Health Trust, in June.

The accusations against Nuell are detailed in complaints filed with the county’s ethics commission.

They allege that Nuell repeatedly called the Jackson business office between May 2011 — when he was appointed to the board — and October 2012 to resolve matters for private clients despite being told specifically not to do so.

The complaints against Nuell were filed in October. It is unclear from the documents whom Nuell, a personal injury attorney, was representing in the settlement negotiations.

The complaints against Nuell were notarized, and signed by JaNene Church, director of the hospital’s corporate business office, and Norma Linares, associate administrator. Employees in the business office collect outstanding patient bills and negotiate settlements with personal-injury attorneys.

Church and Linares did not reply to repeated requests for comment. But the memo from the ethics commission attorney indicates there is merit to their complaints, which are very similar.

Miriam Soler Ramos, deputy general counsel for the ethics commission, wrote in a memo to ethics commissioners dated Feb. 13 that she believes Nuell violated three sections of the county’s ethics ordinance, which prohibits hospital board members from appearing before any county agency on behalf of a third person — and then receiving payment from that party.

The ethics ordinance also bars hospital board members from participating in settlement negotiations of claims or lawsuits involving the hospital without prior approval from the governing board, which Nuell did not have.

According to Ramos’ memo, Nuell represents at least two clients against Jackson, and he speaks to and meets with employees of the business office frequently — even though Mark Knight, the hospital’s chief financial officer, told ethics investigators that he advised Nuell in the fall of 2011 not to contact the business office staff directly.

Emails between hospital staff and Nuell show that Nuell has contacted Jackson executives regarding private clients numerous times between November 2011 to November 2012.

Nuell indicated in the closing of his letter that he intends to keep in touch with the hospital system.

“Much as I look forward to spending more time with my family,’’ Nuell wrote, “I will certainly remain a vocal private advocate for Jackson’s exceptional role in Miami-Dade County.’’

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