THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Attitudes at altitudes

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / May 19, 2010

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Among the many calls I didn’t expect to get last week was the one from Paul Levy, the chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who, having successfully saved his once teetering hospital, is currently trying to save his job.

Levy was involved in what has been very politely described as an “inappropriate relationship’’ with a female underling, a woman who, as it happens, he hired and later fired. And they say chivalry is dead.

Levy called to say that he liked a column I wrote earlier this month in which I suggested that questions about his relationship needed to be answered, questions like: Did Levy squander Beth Israel funds in hiring, promoting, and firing her? Fortunately, the state attorney general has stepped in to pursue the financial issues that the hospital’s board of directors failed to publicly address.

So I found myself in Levy’s office on Brookline Avenue on Monday afternoon, face to face with a man who is widely considered to be among the most charming members of Boston’s leadership elite. I came away with two distinct thoughts: This guy is good, and he just doesn’t get it.

The good part: Levy is thoughtful, he is expansive, he is conciliatory. He has been a force of nature in returning Beth Israel to the powerhouse that it is today.

Yet, forty-five minutes with him provided an extraordinary view into so much of what’s wrong with life in the city’s higher altitudes, where macho favor-trading, undue influence, and complicit governing boards are the way of the day.

Levy hired a young woman he once taught and mentored at MIT. The two had a very public relationship. The woman initially worked directly for Levy until she was given a management job that hadn’t existed before. Last fall, she was fired because of the relationship.

“The leadership mistake was putting the hospital in a situation where people who worked there were made to feel discomforted, resentful, and distracted, thinking she might get special treatment,’’ Levy said Monday. “That was the core of what I did wrong.’’

Good start, but he offered a figurative shrug to questions about whether a woman who was fired because of her relationship with the boss was deserving of $30,000 in severance pay.

“If you’re not eliminating someone for cause, then the person under our policy is entitled to severance,’’ Levy said.

And he saw nothing wrong with the fact that when the woman was terminated, he recommended her for a job at MIT, where he serves on the corporate board. “I made a call,’’ he told me. “I had nothing to do with it beyond that.’’

Yet Levy quietly resigned recently from the audit committee at MIT, which, according to the corporation website, is responsible for oversight of the school’s finances and investments.

“I just thought it would be a prudent thing to do, in light of potential questions, and because the audit committee has a regulatory function,’’ Levy said in a separate interview yesterday. Asked whether the MIT board requested his resignation, he responded, “No.’’

More news: Jeffrey Liebman, the president of Beth Israel’s Needham campus, returned my call yesterday to say it was his idea to promote Levy’s friend to a management job helping to oversee a $30 million expansion there.

“I am absolutely the one who hired her in this job,’’ Liebman said in a brief phone interview. “No one came to me and said you should hire [the friend].’’

Incredibly, Liebman said he had no idea until recently there was a relationship between Levy and the woman.

That’s not the only thing that seems improbable. Levy told the Globe’s Liz Kowalczyk last week that three consecutive heads of the board of directors approached him about rumors of an improper relationship. Yet, the board didn’t take action until it received anonymous correspondence about Levy.

This is how business seems to get done. And this is why the attorney general’s review is so critical to the public trust.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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