THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

No words for severance

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / January 19, 2011

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In the entire history of newspaper reporting, a more straightforward question has never been posed. There is no nuance to it. There are no maybes. There is no gray area.

But ask officials at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center if they plan to give departing hospital chief executive Paul Levy severance pay as he resigns amid controversy, and they suddenly sound like they have mouths full of marbles.

Stephen Kay, the chairman of the board of trustees, won’t return a phone call. Kay is the same official who said he “considers this matter closed’’ in May after the hospital fined Levy $50,000 for what it sparsely but charitably termed a “personal relationship’’ that created “an improper appearance.’’

Of course, the matter was anything but closed. It became public that Levy had hired and promoted a former student of his with whom he was having an intimate relationship; that she worked in newly created jobs for which she was given raises and bonuses; and that key members of the board had been aware of it for years but done nothing.

The state attorney general issued a lengthy report and said that the hospital board needed to do some “soul-searching’’ about Levy’s future. Earlier this month, Levy announced his resignation after what he described as an epiphany during a bicycle trip through Africa and his desire for fresh challenges.

Kay apparently has learned nothing from the fallout. He kicked the issue about severance to Geri Denterlein, a public relations consultant hired by BIDMC, who in turn said in an e-mail, “It is a longstanding policy at BIDMC to protect the privacy of our employees; consequently, we do not comment on personnel matters for any individual.’’

Problem is, nobody’s asking about personnel matters. What I was asking about is whether the hospital, a cherished nonprofit institution, would be using taxpayer and health care dollars to give its chief executive a green kiss on his way out the door.

Likewise, Judy Glasser, the hospital’s senior vice president for public relations, declined to reveal whether the hospital planned to pay severance, and said Levy would not return a phone call. How many PR people does it take to say nothing?

BIDMC filings with the IRS, included in a submission to the state attorney general’s office, say Levy may be entitled to anywhere from zero to $1.6 million in severance, though it’s “circumstance dependent.’’ Kay is undoubtedly aware that a severance payment made today won’t be publicly filed until February 2012.

What circumstance calls for severance? If Levy really is leaving of his own accord, why does anyone owe him anything? And if he’s getting pushed out or bought out by the board, why don’t he and the trustees just acknowledge it? Why is everyone expected to wink and nod with public money?

There’s something else that nags. 2011 did not promise to be a good year for the reputations of Levy or BIDMC. Dr. Carol Warfield, the highly regarded head of anesthesiology at BIDMC, is likely to have her day in court in a civil suit against the institution.

She charges that Dr. Josef Fischer, the head of surgery, was abusive toward her and other women at the hospital. Levy’s answer, according to Warfield’s complaint, was to criticize Warfield for “playing the victim’’ and “a lack of leadership,’’ and counseling her to have male staffers deal with Fischer since he refused to talk to her. A Harvard-led review determined that 90 percent of the fault for the problems between the two department chairs was Fischer’s, the complaint said.

Still, Levy demoted Warfield in 2007. Warfield filed suit in 2008, and a few months later, Levy fired Fischer, saying his management approach “was not consistent’’ with the hospital. Levy, through Glasser, declined comment. I was unable to reach Dick Glovsky, Fischer’s lawyer.

Amid all this, it’s almost embarrassing to even have to ask if Levy’s getting severance. It’s far more embarrassing that Steve Kay doesn’t feel the need to answer.

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