A Broward County judge on Monday dismissed criminal charges against five current or former leaders of Broward Health who were accused of violating Florida’s open-meetings law.
The charges stemmed from a series of one-on-one meetings at a hotel and restaurant between board members and former Broward Health General Counsel Lynn Barrett as well as an outside lawyer. The meetings culminated in a board vote in December 2016 to fire interim CEO Pauline Grant on kickback allegations and report the matter to the Office of Inspector General.
Broward Health is one of the largest public hospital systems in the country, but has gone through a tumultuous few years with leadership issues, a mass exodus of doctors and legal investigations.
In December 2017, a grand jury had indicted former Barrett, former Chief Executive Officer Beverly Capasso, former board chair Rocky Rodriguez, and board members Linda Robison and Christopher Ure on misdemeanor charges for violating the Sunshine Law.
After hearing from their attorneys on Tuesday, Broward County Judge Christopher Pole granted a motion to dismiss the criminal charges against Barrett as well as the board members, stating he did not believe there was criminal intention to violate Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law nor did he find the state had proven an actual violation. The Sunshine Law requires meetings of public boards to take place in public with advance notice of what will be discussed and minutes taken.
The state has 30 days to appeal the ruling.
Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly argued on Monday that Barrett had held defacto public meetings with board members, which denied the public from knowing the thought process that went into the vote in favor of the firing just a week or two later.
“I’m a little surprised that he did not consider the defacto meetings a violation,” Donnelly said. “We will review the judge’s written order as soon as it is issued, and we plan to appeal the decision.”
Roberto Martinez, Barrett’s attorney, told the judge Barrett met with board members to provide legal advice and did not act as an intermediary between board members. He argued that when a staff member meets with a board member to give advice it should not be considered a defacto meeting.
“It is perfectly legal. If every time a staff member met with a board member the public needed to be noticed, it would make the system unworkable,” he said. The charges, he said, were a violation of due process laws and Barrett’s First Amendment rights.
Capasso’s attorney, Markenzy Lapointe, argued the charges in the indictment, particularly conspiracy, were not applicable to his client, a former nurse who had joined the board only about two months prior to board vote that lead to the CEO’s firing. He said Capasso was called while playing tennis to meet with the general counsel, whose job it was to provide legal guidance.
“We need more than what’s been alleged to have criminal culpability. Presence is not conspiracy,” he argued. Capasso, who attended the Tuesday hearing, was tearful over the judge’s ruling, but did not want to comment.
Ure said he now looks toward the future with the charges behind him.
“I am relieved to be vindicated. I did absolutely nothing wrong. I look forward to all the great things Broward Health does every day being the sole focus of our community’s attention.”