Troubles continue at UMDNJ As former exec files lawsuit

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by Darren Williams

Troubles at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey persist as the institution, a top producer of minority health professionals, was hit last month with a lawsuit from a former executive who claims he was forced out because he helped uncover allegedly illegal financial practices.

The lawsuit is a link in a chain of scandalous events that have plagued UMDNJ in the past 12 months. The university is currently under the close scrutiny of a federal monitor, former federal Judge Herbert J. Stern, who was appointed by U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie more than a year ago.

Christie installed Stern as a monitor soon after Christie charged UMDNJ with Medicaid fraud in December 2005.

Five lawsuits have been filed against UMDNJ in the past six months, all of which are being disputed by the university.

James Lawler, former chief financial officer at UMDNJ’s University Hospital in Newark, filed his suit in Essex County, N.J., claiming university officials tried to “coerce” him into signing a fraudulent and illegal Medicare report and forced him to quit his job when he refused to cooperate.

“Mr. Lawler voluntarily resigned his position as CFO at University Hospital and we will dispute any assertion to the contrary,” says UMDNJ spokeswoman Anna Farneski.

In his suit, Lawler is seeking unspecified damages along with severance pay and legal fees. Several attempts to reach Lawler’s attorney, Bruce McMoran, by phone were unsuccessful.

Last year began with a report that UMDNJ paid $83,700 to chauffeur the director of the volunteer advisory board from her home in Pennsylvania’s Poconos to the Newark campus in a town car.

Then two more scandals surfaced including disclosure of a system in which job applicants were formally graded based on their political connections and a secret political slush fund used to get favors with the powerful and elite.

Things went from bad to worse when a cardiology kickback scheme surfaced; local cardiologists were given high-paid, no-show jobs and in return, they would funnel their patients into a heart surgery program the state had placed on probation.

According to Farneski, two people have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigations. She identified them as Ronald Pittore, managing director of the UMDNJ legal department, and Dr. Jerrold Ellner, professor of clinical medicine.

Ellner also resigned his position as chairman of the department of medicine, Farneski says.

On Nov. 15, 2006, interim president Dr. Bruce C. Vladeck sent a memo to dean Robert Johnson directing him to immediately implement a new reporting and data collection system to track how often employees come to work and how many hours per week they are putting in.

“This is the first step, and certainly not the last, in a review process to ensure that all physician compensation and employment relationships at UMDNJ are fully in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” Vladeck said.

The salaries of nine cardiologists were reduced and two were terminated as a result of the cardiology scandal, Farneski says.

Despite the problems, philanthropic contributions to UMDNJ’s foundation reached a record-breaking $34.7 million in 2006, up $1.3 million from the previous year.

In the past year, Stern has been pressing trustees at the university to begin a search for a permanent president and has issued a series of reports that detail more than $243 million in fraud and waste.

University enrollment is increasing at UMDNJ, according the school’s University Day Report, a 28-page document released in September 2006 which summarizes the school’s accomplishments over the past year.

UMDNJ is ranked No. 1 in granting the most medical degrees to minorities in Diverse’s Top 100 Graduate and ranked 19th in total Minority First Professional in dentistry.

UMDNJ is the nation’s largest free-standing public health sciences university, with more than 5,500 students on five campuses. In June 2006, it graduated its largest class in history: 1,476 health professionals and scientists.



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