Judges backed Butterworth’s push to nail down DCF’s $44.8 million Broward healthcare contract

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer, left, and ex-Judge Marcia Beach

A state appeals court chief judge and three Broward Circuit Court judges lent their names to Bob Butterworth’s private push for a $44.8 million-a-year state mental health management contract, state records show.

The judges are recently resigned members of the board of directors of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit that teamed up with Miami’s for-profit Concordia Behavioral Health to win the deal.

A multiyear contract is to be signed this week that establishes Broward Behavioral as the county’s new “managing entity” for substance abuse and mental health services.

Three judges who joined the board early on are identified by name and title on bid documents submitted to the Florida Department of Children and Families last winter by Butterworth, a former DCF secretary who is president and chairman of Broward Behavioral. Biographies of the judges were included.

Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, however, prohibits judges from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”

The judges are Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May, Broward Circuit Judges Michele Towbin-Singer and Marcia Beach – who recently retired, and county mental health court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Towbin-Singer succeeded Beach in drug court.

Each of the judges resigned from Broward Behavioral’s board this month after a state judicial ethics panel ruled in June that judges may not serve on such boards. Earlier, Butterworth had assured DCF negotiators the judges would not step down.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May

The last to resign: Judge May, who quit minutes before Monday evening’s board meeting. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The ethics opinion has not stopped judges around the state from serving on the boards of other DCF managing entities.

For example, in Miami-Dade Judges Steven Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen serve on the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman chairs the group.

DCF’s contract award in Broward last March prompted a bid protest from a competing group that claimed the contract had been illegally steered to Butterworth’s group by unnamed state officials. The protest was dismissed, but the corruption allegations were not investigated.

JUDGES’ NAMES MADE AN IMPRESSION  

Records show the judges’ presence on the board impressed DCF’s negotiators. Shortly before the contract was awarded last March, negotiators cited the judges as a reason to look favorably on Broward Behavioral’s bid, a review of audio recordings show.

BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that a silent investor in Concordia, Broward Behavioral’s profit-seeking partner, is a deep-pocketed political insider who has given heavily to Gov. Rick Scott’s campaigns.

On Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, an organization raising money for Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and one of his companies, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, records show.

JUDGES AND ETHICS

The connection of big campaign money to the Broward managing entity contract is particularly problematic for judges who are generally supposed to steer clear of political influence.

But there was another problem.

The June 11 ethics opinion that held judges should not serve on the boards of private, not-for-profit corporations that – like Broward Behavioral – are organized to administer tens of millions of dollars in DCF funds.

A judge in Palm Beach County had sought the opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee that advises judges so they can steer clear of trouble.

“Of particular concern in the present case is the nature of the managing entity. Viewed one way, the managing entity is a stand-in for an agency of the executive branch,” the opinion says. Judges who serve on such boards “could be said to be involved in the granting of governmental funds and overseeing their use.”

The opinion cited another concern: that judges who serve on such boards could be perceived as conduits or agents for vendors like Concordia.

“Whether or not the (unidentified vendor) is itself a corporation not for profit, a judge should take care not to lend the prestige of judicial office to advance its interests,” the opinion says.

Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

Judges May, Towbin-Singer and Beach served on Broward Behavioral’s board for months after the ruling. In September, records show, then-Judge Beach even participated with Butterworth in a contract negotiation session with DCF.

Judge Wren was not identified to DCF as a board member until Oct. 1.

BUTTERWORTH WANTS A BETTER ANSWER

Butterworth, a politically connected Democrat and former judge and sheriff, discussed the ethics ruling during an Oct. 9 negotiation session. He said Broward Behavioral’s judges had “been advised they don’t have to resign at this time” and that “every judge to the best of my knowledge” would continue to serve.

The state’s former top attorney also declared that he wanted to go back to the ethics committee with a reframed question in search of a better answer.

“We are attempting to work on an appropriate question to ask the committee and we hope we get a different response,” Butterworth told the DCF negotiators.

By last Thursday, however, the status of at least some of the judges had changed.

Hollywood attorney Larry Davis, a Broward Behavioral board member, informed the DCF negotiators that it was now decided the judges “can’t serve at this point” and that a search was on for replacements.

In an interview Friday, board member and County Commissioner Lois Wexler said that Judges Towbin-Singer, Beach and Wren had stepped down from Behavioral’s board.

Judge May, however, remained on the board. Earlier in the month, Butterworth had told DCF that the Fourth District Court of Appeal “is not covered by the advisory opinion,” but did not explain why.

On Monday, May arrived at Butterworth’s Fort Lauderdale law office about 15 minutes before the meeting and went to his office.

She expressed concern about “the negativity that’s around her participation” on the board, said Wexler.

Shortly after that, the judge resigned.

 

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