Loose Lips

Critical Condition

Critical Condition: Who's Really Running D.C.'s United Medical Center?

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

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

Comments

  1. #1

    One City. Zero Standards.

  2. #2

    DC lack of political structure and lack of full representation is a major contributing factor to the disfunctional government that we have. The quality of many of our eleceted leaders is lacking and thus the quality of the board, commission, department picks are even more lacking.

  3. #3

    A bishop to run the hospital board? Who seems to have NO EXPERIENCE in running anything other than a church?

    Nice pick Mayor Gray (rolling eyes). Another loser appeased for political purposes, rather than appointing someone knowledgeable to stand up to that idiot Catania (who is another reason for the dire straits the hospital and health care in DC is substandard).

  4. #4

    Yet another example of our elected officials misusing their positions for personal gain. It has become the standard here in DC. Vince Gray is showing his true colors and it isn't pretty. We need the control board to drain this rancid swamp of corruption and self dealing.

  5. #5

    David has a problem. His planting of his people in the Department of Health like Johnnie Rice and others is about to be exposed .Maybe it is time for an answer on the 58 million that may lead to his alleged infuence and involvment. The stone you throw may crack your mirror .

  6. #6

    Wondering if LL plans to seek and obtain through freedom of information act, the salaries and home addresses of other board members and those top level executives. Things that make you go hmmm.

  7. #7

    Hudson - What a joke. $170,000 in his own words WOW! Not only is the hospital a joke but unders his leadership at Matthews, alot of member left!

  8. #8

    Under Hudson leadership (or lack of leadership) Matthews Memorial Baptist Church has gone from one of the finest churches in DC to on of the worst. A lot of the older member who have been there for years has left and the people who remain are afraid to ask question about the church finances because Hudson would attack over the pulpit. He calls himself a Bishops but he made himself Bishop what a joke. He really thinks he can win Barry seat one day but the people of ward 8 are not that dumb. He is taking advantage of the poor. $90,000 for a car WOW.

  9. #9

    Seems like Hudson is the Eddie Long of DC? I can't believe people are so vunerable that they cannot see through these typle people. Getting rich on the backs of the poor. I guess l am like everyone else - WOW

  10. #10

    Is this the same person i see plastered on the back of the Metro buses? I believe so. After reading this article my eyes have really been opened and i have been enlightened. I always thought it is a waste of money to promote yourself rather than help those who really need it. Plus one of my friends said this guy has been to Haiti three times, but is tot sure why? Seems like all the money spent on airfare and hotel (in the Domiican Repubic) should been given to a local charity that directly assists the people of Haiti. What a sham! Get this guy off the board. He should resign and help the mayor save face!

  11. #11

    Sounds like this guy should be further investigated. Not only is he one the payroll making $170k, but also his wife works at the church and his son. So am i sure they all are laughing their way to the bank. Like everyone else WOW!

  12. #12

    Seems like only does the hospital needs to get him off the board, but also his church needs to fire him. Not sure what is up with the black leadership in Washington, DC. First, Marion Berry, then Jack Johnson, and now Vince Gray and Charles Hudson. They are all greedy and crooked. This is especially bac because he is hiding behind the poor. Although it seems like he is enjoying the good life.

  13. #13

    Allegedly Catania hates both poor and Black people and a Black woman don't stand a chance with him. What White Gay man thinks it is ok to ask a Black woman or any woman for that matter, who she is sleeping with at a hearing? Get him out of the hospital business now.

  14. #14

    What hospital in their right mind would buy a money losing hospital in Ward 8? Their best bet is insolvency and Federal receivership.

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