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Ex-medical center official indicted

Dorchester clinic revamped after thefts found

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / May 10, 2011

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Three years ago, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center was bleeding money. Programs were cut, staff was barely paid, care deteriorated. Some of the city’s poorest patients were forced to look elsewhere for medical help or do without.

As the Dorchester facility struggled to keep its doors open, prosecutors say, a payroll consultant was living a life of luxury, with a penthouse in Cambridge and several sports cars, including a Lamborghini.

Yesterday a Suffolk County grand jury indicted Nzeribe McKenzie, 33, of Cambridge, alleging that he manipulated the books to conceal thefts of some $750,000 from the health center from 2003 to 2008 and that he spent the money on himself, according to the Suffolk district attorney.

“Mr. McKenzie used his position to fund his own lavish lifestyle,’’ said Jake Wark, spokesman for District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “At a time when the center was on the verge of financial collapse, the defendant was driving sports cars and living in a penthouse apartment.’’

Neither McKenzie nor his lawyer, James E. McCall, could be reached for comment yesterday.

Prosecutors say new management discovered the alleged theft when they took over three years ago and notified the district attorney’s office.

Chidi Achebe, the current executive director, greeted news of the indictment with relief, saying he hopes the case will put to rest any doubts about the health center.

“We want to bring final closure to this dark chapter of this health care institution,’’ said Achebe. “We need to make sure that people know that we have cleaned this place up and are turning it around.’’

Achebe, a medical doctor from Framingham, was hired three years ago to transform the cash-strapped health center, which had long struggled to live up to its mission of providing quality health care to Boston’s poor.

The 42-year-old health center is one of the oldest of the city’s 26 facilities, and it sits across the street from Franklin Park Zoo near Blue Hill Avenue and Columbia Road. It occupies a nondescript, four-story building set along a dreary block.

An independent nonprofit, Harvard Street gets most of its funding from the Department of Public Health, Boston Medical Center, Medicaid, and Medicare, and it provides a range of services to the impoverished in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.

The health center has endured despite a history including allegations of mismanagement, scandal, and now criminal theft. In 2006, Harvard Street was forced to shut its popular substance abuse treatment facility after investigators from the Department of Public Health found serious lapses there, including missing locks and a lack of food for residents in treatment.

Achebe, who was fresh from Yale with a master’s degree, was hired in 2008 to restore credibility to Harvard Street, as well as improve the quality of health care and management practices. When he stepped into the building, he said, the carpet smelled of urine, dirt stained the walls, even the front door was falling off the hinges.

That September, as Achebe and the new board assessed the health center’s operations, an accountant discovered huge sums of money missing and traced it to one person. McKenzie was fired, and the staff turned over boxes of documents to the district attorney’s office.

The grand jury’s indictment includes five counts of larceny over $250 by continuous scheme and 13 counts of making false entries on corporate books. He will be arraigned May 25.

“The evidence will show that he was taking the center’s money to fund his lifestyle at the expense of patients who actually needed services,’’ Wark said.

Philip Johnston, a former Massachusetts secretary of health and human services who has been advising Achebe and his board, said he was stunned to learn of the alleged theft.

“I was shocked that one could steal . . . from a community health center and get away with it,’’ Johnston said.

But Scott Harshberger, who provided pro bono legal counsel to the center last year, described Harvard Street as being in total disarray when Achebe took charge, saying failures in management and oversight led to the alleged theft and other lapses.

“The fact was that Dr. Achebe and this board had inherited a nightmare in terms of a legacy of poor administration, poor management, a great deal of neglect at the board level,’’ he said.

Achebe described his tenure at the helm as “three hellish years.’’ Things were so bad in the beginning that he considered dire possibilities, including merging with another facility, filing for bankruptcy, or closing.

But the staff refused.

“I started feeling a sense of neglect on behalf of the patients and the community,’’ Achebe said. “I said, ‘Where were the stakeholders in all of this and the people who were supposed to be monitoring this place?’ ’’

Harvard Street found a way out. The staff board reached out to the medical community. Boston Medical Center gave $400,000, helping to keep the center open that first year. St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center later began offering OB-GYN care there, and UMass Memorial Medical Center rebuilt the center’s failing lab.

Harvard Street sold off real estate that freed up money, worked with creditors on debt repayment plans, and established management and work policies for the first time.

It was not easy. It had cut $700,000 from the budget and laid off 10 workers to maintain mental health and counseling services.

Today Harvard Street, which has a budget under $10 million, has more than 53,000 patient visits yearly, its long-term debt has been cut from about $3 million three years ago to about $415,000 by March.

Critical care services such as mental health, pediatrics and primary health care are again thriving, Achebe said. It has new carpeting, freshly painted walls, and glass ceilings indoors.

Now Harvard Street is working to apply for federal grants to broaden its services and serve more people.

“We are definitely headed in the right direction,’’ said board chairman Stan McLeran. “We have been going out and letting folks know that this is a new leadership, a new board, and a new direction.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.