BCHF: CEO Fired?
Last updated 10/26/2020 at Noon
“Those that take more than they deserve will eventually fall!” Angela Torres, former BCHF credentials officer.
The Trustees of the Borrego Community Health Foundation (BCHF) have announced the departure of Mikia Wallis as CEO of the Foundation’s network of multiple clinics in three counties. Wallis, long-time friend, business partner, legal counsel and confidant to Bruce Hebets, replaced Hebets as CEO in 2018.
Dan Anderson, chairman of the BCHF Trustees, during a conversation with the Borrego Sun stated, “There will be an interim CEO, while the organization searches for Wallis’ replacement,” and in response to a question by the Sun, regarding speculation that Anderson might have wanted the position, he said that he was “absolutely not interested.”
Anonymous sources claim Wallis is asking for three years of her $500,000 plus annual salary, or $1.0 million as a severance settlement. Anderson denied these claims saying, “This will never happen.”
However, a later statement forwarded by Anderson to the Borrego Sun tells a different, but familiar story. Anderson referred to a mutual parting of the ways between Wallis and BCHF. He then added, “She will be staying on as a consultant.” As learned while investigating BCHF’s activities, a consultant is a ghost employee, who BCHF doesn’t claim, and doesn’t work, but still draws a salary – just like Dr. Alfredo Ratniewski. Who knows who else falls under this job description?
When asked about Wallis remaining on the payroll as a consultant, Anderson explained that “she has no authority, but remains employed to answer questions.” One wonders, are these questions related to the legal investigation the Trustees have undertaken?
Then another shocker – “Trustees still have to work out a separation agreement with Wallis,” Anderson announced, conceding that a separation agreement usually involves money, contrary to Anderson’s previous statement that a $1 million dollar settlement “will never happen.”
See the pattern here? It’s the same old cover-up-pattern BCHF used previously to remove problem personnel and yet continue to pay them. Remember Dr. Ratniewski, and Dr. Dauod Ghafari? Both were said to have resigned, only to pop up later as employees with minor salary reductions and no job descriptions.
So Wallis isn’t really gone. Wallis has just joined the ghost staff of Dr. Ratniewski, and others that lurk behind the scenes, influencing BCHF practices.
Also, remember that buyouts are not new to the organization. Bruce Hebets, suffering from terminal cancer, was given a “retirement gift” or “buyout” of $1.83 million. This was considerably reduced from the $5 million first considered by the Trustees. Since it’s illegal for a non-profit to gift an employee in such a significant amount, the payment of $1.8 million plus was disclosed to the IRS as salary. Claiming in the IRS-990, year 2018 – 19, that Hebets worked 40 hours a week, even though he died six months into his purported work schedule, BCHF definitely showed intent to willfully hide the payment.
Wallis’ removal to the ranks of the ghosts of BCHF past, but still hanging around, coincides with other removals from the Board of Trustees, including Mike Hickok, treasurer, Chuck Kimbal, former Chairman of the Board, and resignation of Sarah Lee Rogers. Two officers – Nancy Peeling, Chief Quality Officer, and Gabriela Alvarado, Chief Compliance Officer, resigned earlier this year. The shakeups come amidst a five month investigation by the Borrego Sun of the foundation’s misappropriations of funds and illegal profiteering as a federal and state subsidized health care non-profit.
Hickok served as a trustee for over 10 years and as the board treasurer. Both Hickok and Kimbal were removed “without cause.” When Anderson was asked the reason for their removal, he offered no response other than referring the Sun to speak to Hickok. But Hickok, as Anderson knows, was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement.
A decision regarding the removal of Diana Thompson, Chief Financial Officer, with ties to the Hebets family, and with numerous family members employed by the Foundation, is still being discussed, according to Anderson.
“If they want real change, they need to get rid of all the officers, anyone with officer, or chief officer as a title needs to go, even the IT guy,” said Rita Anderson, former Director of Purchasing and 14-year employee, who was fired this year.
“They all knew what was going on. They are thick as thieves.”
So why aren’t Thompson and other officers on the chopping block? According to Anderson, “You have to understand the nature of transitions in an organization,” perhaps, implying they are needed to carry on the everyday running of the Foundation.
At the same time, he is committing to the status quo of officers; Anderson stated the removal of Wallis and subsequent board members has to do with “The fact the board is moving in a different direction.” When asked about what’s going to be different? Anderson responded that “this information would be revealed in press releases over time, going to the Borrego community.”
Wallis who was installed at a weekend event at a posh resort, described by an attendee as having all the fan-fare of a “coronation,” was assumed to continue Hebets’ policies and practices.
The event, like BCHF’s other questionable entertainment expenses, was charged to the non-profit to the tune of $300,000, and billed to federal government, most likely, as a “doctors training seminar.”
Hebets, his family and friends employed by the Foundation have piled up millions of dollars to purchase expensive homes, cars and used the Foundation to create jobs for their children, spouses and friends over his 16-year reign. The Borrego Sun, without subpoena powers or a forensic audit, is only able to breach the tip of the ice berg.
The removal of Kimbal – a cheerleader and long-time friend of Hebets – from the Board of Trustees came as a shock to BCHF employees and observers. Kimbal was likewise surprised. A former Chairman of the Trustees, Kimbal sees no illegal activities. He suggested, that his removal only reflects “changes from the old days, under Hebets, when the organization operated as family, and had a lot of fun.”
Indeed, there seems to be a cleansing of Hebets’ loyalists, as well as board members “who ask too many questions,” and members representing Borrego. Three new Trustees have already been appointed to the board by Anderson. While their biographies are not yet posted on the BCHF website, it can be assumed they’re from the Riverside area, where Anderson has his base of operations.
One person removed for “asking too many questions” was board Treasurer Mike Hickok.
“I asked multiple times about the Premier Management deal, even wrote letters complaining about the trustee’s inability to get information from Mikia and other officers,” Hickok said.
“When I pointed out examples of what I thought might be serious misbehavior and that we should look into it, the rest of the Trustees just sat silently. There was not the slightest bit of interest expressed, not a word, or a peep from any of them.
“When Sarah Rogers was on the board, she also asked questions and expressed concerns about the legality of some activities – past and present. She was essentially forced out by people complaining about her questioning as being ‘too negative and wasting board time.”’
Rogers believes removing Hickok from the board was a “bad move.” “I found him to be an honest broker and very diligent. He was vital to changes, and improvements in the direction of the board.
“Mike asked questions. And, like me, never received any answers.”
Kimbal, and others who worked with Bruce Hebets described him, as well liked by employees, as a “CEO who took care of his people,” and “solved every problem.” He was famous for having Friday afternoon parties and loyalty to his friends. Kimbal, also had nothing but praise for Wallis and the Foundation’s operations.
One of Hebets’ friends, his builder and construction manager, Daryl Priest, a prominent developer and real estate businessman in San Diego’s east county, has also been under scrutiny as the owner of a healthcare management company –Premier Management- that handles BCHF’s dental services. Priest, with no background in the health care field, is chartered with the state to operate a privately-owned, health care management company, with BCHF and one other non-profit as clients. Questions abound about Hebets’ role in this enterprise.
Some have speculated Hebets may have been a partner or owned shares in the company, as a result of his request to the Trustees that BCHF partner in the enterprise, or at least buy shares. Over a few short years, Premier Healthcare Management has been servicing an average of 200,000 new client visits annually.
In the Foundation’s 2018 – 19, IRS-990 disclosure, the foundation reported 842,000 dental visits. Thanks to Premier, dental services have miraculously expanded beyond BCHF’s geographic service areas to become the primary source of revenue.
With Premier recruiting, vetting, credentialing, and handling payroll for BCHF’s expanding dental services, the Foundation has been raking in, not just new clients, but millions in revenue. The problem, among other sticky issues, is that the Trustees had voted not to turn the Foundation’s dental practices over to Premier. However, Hebets and other officers, proceeded without board approval. Equally egregious, the Foundation has never disclosed the management company to the IRS as required by law, or to the Board to Trustees.
Angie Torres, former BCHF credentials officer, claims when she raised questions about vetting dentists recruited by Premier, she was told “hands off,” and that BCHF officials shrouded the entire operation in secrecy.
Torres explained, “Greed took over and Borrego’s leaders lost their principles of what was right or wrong. Their behavior toward their employers that had goodness were destroyed and honest employees were let go.”
Mikia Wallis is said to have stated that there had been fraud regarding dental services. She also said, “She would take care of it.” When Anderson was asked about the details of that statement, as well as returning $300,000 to the state to solve the problem, he demurred, opining, “This is under legal investigation,” and, therefore, he could not comment. To date, there’s no verification that the state was paid back revenues that were not legally earned.
Despite BCHF officers having general knowledge of Premier’s activities and growing concerns about multi-million-dollar payments to dentists with existing legal problems such as Dr. Husam Aldairi, who received $6.1 million in 2019, the subject never surfaced until some Trustees began asking questions prompted by the Sun. Anderson, along with Wallis, refused to answer trustee’s questions about Premier, according to Mike Hickok and Sarah Rogers. All in the know demurred, even when it became clear that Premier pocketed at least $20 million, in undisclosed income in 2018 – 19, using the BCHF non-profit status to bill the state and federal government for dental services by private contractors.
In response to growing concerns about Premier, Anderson hired a law firm that he has used in the past to look into the dental services, and other concerns. The law firm of Hooper, Lundy and Bookman is completing its report, and Anderson, assured the Borrego Sun, the newspaper would be allowed to see the report and its final conclusions.
In the meantime, the BCHF Board of Trustees are busy pointing fingers at other Trustees, who they now say were complicit with Hebets in approving the contract and keeping the contract from the other Trustees. The history and true facts of the association may never be known, due to payoff-layoffs and stonewalling by the Board of Trustees and BCHF officers.
However, this raises questions of whether firing Wallis resolves conflicts of interest and poor management decisions, illegal IRS reporting; and falsified client contacts compensated with tax payers money that circulate around employees, programs and purchases benefitting BCHF officers.
The Chief Financial Officer Diana Thompson signed the latest IRS report, the Board of Trustees approved it, and no doubt, numerous personnel such as the former Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Alfredo Ratienwski, were aware the disclosures have not truthfully reflected foundation’s actual financial transactions. Ratienwski, who has been Hebets partner in various personal money-making schemes billed under the BCHF status, earned millions beyond his bi-annual of salary of $1.3 million, and $3.7 million from selling his client lists to the foundation, is complicit in profiteering.
There is no statute of limitations on defrauding the state of California or the Federal government. As much as removing Wallis is an attempt to put past transgressions behind them, the foundation cannot declare a house cleaning, new set of ethics and honest pursuit of their mission without repaying the state and federal governments. By some accounts those figures could be staggering.
The BCHF clinics receive federal and state Medicaid, Medicare, grants and other government funds to provide quality health care to vulnerable populations without other options for treatment, including low income, elderly and minority populations. The clinics provide treatment for a wide range of people, and include specialty clinical services for migrants and transsexuals.
Unlike privately owned health care facilities, BCHF, as a federally qualified healthcare clinic (s) operates with government funding – taxpayer’s money. As a result, healthcare non-profits are held to a high standard of transparency with strict regulations on the use of funds that are enforced and overseen by federal and state regulatory agencies. Sadly, BCHF has revealed through their federal IRS disclosures practices of misappropriating funds, hiding expenditures, nepotism, and extravagant salaries and benefits for officers.
The top-heavy management and administrative team, includes 29 officers and directors (approximate count). Some officers draw salaries in the range of $600,000 plus, with extra benefits. Despite these generous salaries, many of the officers do not actually put in normal working hours, or meet the qualifications and experience to oversee the network of clinics. The BCHF clinics are identified by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), as the “most expensive” and “fastest growing healthcare non-profit in the United States.”
Anderson did note that Dr. Husam Aldairi was let go, but was finishing up with scheduled patients. Heard that one before. Dr. Ratniewski been overwhelmed with work for years with a client list of 17, or 71.
It’s difficult to have confidence in BCHF’s new transparency when board members are forced to sign confidentiality agreements, prohibiting any conversations with media and the community. An organization with nothing to hide doesn’t gag community representatives. When non-profit officials refuse to speak to the media or hide their public IRS disclosures in the desk of the financial officer, it’s only natural to assume something is not quite right.
Then there are Anderson’s own conflicts of interests, receiving rental payments from BCHF for leasing clinic offices and equipment that exceed standard commercial rates, and his installation of Trustees that receive money from his foundation or serve on his Foundation’s Board of Directors.
The original issue and impetus of the Borrego Sun’s investigations was not the foundation’s questionable activities, but the loss of quality personnel and deterioration of services at the Borrego Springs Clinic.
According to Sarah Rogers, she resigned because she believed the Foundation needed a change in direction, especially the lack of attention paid to the local clinic. “The Borrego Springs clinic was not up to the standard of care offered at other clinics.”
“There were many things that worried me. When the Sun reported the failure of the financial officer to report fees paid to a lobbying firm, I was very upset. I had asked her to correct it, which she partially did in the next filing.” Rogers, who served on the board’s audit committee, also asked why Premier wasn’t listed in the IRS-990’s. Sarah Rogers isn’t the only one waiting for the true facts about the relationship with Premier Healthcare Management and BCHF.
So, what about the future of the Borrego Springs clinic?
For starters, Anderson as chairman of the Board of Trustees, has publicly voiced his dislike for Borrego, and the drive from Riverside to meetings. He warned board members before the COVID-19 outbreak that future meetings would be in Riverside. Anderson, conveniently, owns a non-profit chartered as the Riverside Community Health Foundation. The non-profit primarily exists as a healthcare investment company, with off-shore accounts.
Anderson has packed the Board of Trustees with a network of Riverside, and San Bernardino residents. Now with the removal of Hickok, Kimbal and resignation of Rogers, there are only three Borregans on the board. Plus, he has taken the opportunity to appoint three more allies, no doubt, ensuring an Anderson/Riverside-oriented agenda.
A problem with Trustee appointments became clear with the crises at the Borrego Springs clinic, when all the professionals were fired, missing, or resigned. Federal guidelines require 25 percent of board members must include people who use the clinic. The fact that none of the board members were aware of the problems at the local clinic, until the Borrego Sun began reporting them, is evidence none of them use the clinic, or they would have been aware of the staffing debacle. That goes for the negligence of the well-paid BCHF officers charged with staffing clinics, who did nothing for months.
Wallis agreed to work with a group of Borrego medical experts led by Dr. Carrollee Barlow, to develop a business plan to upgrade and modernize the local clinic with urgent care, a lab and a realistic staffing of professional providers to service the needs of the valley. The goal is to make the Borrego Springs clinic sustainable financially and improve quality of care. This includes elevating the level professional expertise, services, credibility and ability to attract residents, part-timers and vacationers with private insurance, in addition to servicing those with government insurance.
Anderson admitted that he didn’t know the status of this project, or if while Wallis is still employed, she will be working with Dr. Barlow.
In the end, the changes announced by BCHF reflects a typical public relations ploy to cover up corruption by fingering one of the bad apples, removing them, or moving them to the BCHF office with the other ghost personnel. Then, they declare problems solved: Clean start to be disclosed sometime in the future.
Unfortunately, the situation also poses a potential stalemate in community hopes for quality medical services. Circle the wagons Borrego, and get organized to save the clinic.