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Adrian Walker

A long path back to trust

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 24, 2010

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Paul Levy was at an event with some of his nurses one night recently when an employee vented her anger at him.

Recalled Levy: “A woman I’ve known the whole time I’ve been here said, ‘I don’t even know what to say to you.’ And I told her, ‘I know there are people who are angry or upset, and I hope I can make it up to you over time.’ ’’

It has been a trying month for Levy, the Beth Israel Deaconess chief executive who has been answering uncomfortable questions — many of them from his board of directors — about his relationship with a female former subordinate. The hospital board has fined him $50,000 for his “inappropriate’’ relationship, and asked Attorney General Martha Coakley to review its actions regarding Levy.

But beyond the boardroom, another relationship also looms large in Levy’s professional future: his now-fractured relationship with the staff he has managed for eight years.

“Ultimately, the authority to do this kind of job, to be a CEO — as important as the board is — does not derive from the board. It derives from the people you work with. And maintaining their trust and confidence is important,’’ Levy said in an interview last week.

Levy’s problems began with an anonymous letter to the board accusing him of carrying on an improper relationship with a subordinate. Rumors had swirled around the two for years. She left the hospital last year and moved to a job at MIT, partly through Levy’s intervention. He had initially befriended her when she was an MIT undergraduate and he became her mentor at the school, where he is a trustee.

After the story erupted, Levy didn’t help himself by issuing a series of statements that apologized for a “lapse in judgment’’ that didn’t explain anything about the lapse, or the circumstances. He says now that his statements — which were downright Nixonian in their evasiveness — had to be approved by the board, and that he could not be more forthcoming while it was still deliberating his fate.

His mistake, he says now, was hiring his close friend in the first place. “Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have hired her,’’ he said. “I think that what I misjudged — one of the things I misjudged — was thinking that my personal life and professional life were sufficiently separate that it wouldn’t matter that she was a friend, and that we were seen around town at social events and other things. It turns out that it did matter.’’

Levy’s signature moment, until recently, had been persuading his employees to take pay cuts last year that saved low-income workers from being laid off. He said he was able to win that concession because of his personal credibility, authority that has now taken a serious hit.

“I could go in front of them and say ‘I want to do what I can for the low-income workers but that means everyone will have to take a bigger sacrifice.’ I was able to do that because I had the moral authority to say those things,’’ he said. “If it were today, would I have the same amount of moral authority? I think not quite. I’d like to get back to the point that I do again.’’

While the results of the attorney general’s review of the Levy matter are weeks, perhaps months, away, Levy has made it clear that he will not quit, and the board certainly doesn’t seem inclined to fire him. It’s hard to blame members, given Levy’s stellar track record. He will probably survive, and, pending the outcome of the review, I think he should.

Still, even Levy wonders whether he will ever regain all that he has lost.

“I’m curious — at a personal level and as a political scientist — whether one bad mistake in the public eye undoes four decades of public service.’’ Levy said. “And I just don’t know how society, Boston society, will treat that.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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