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Searching for a smoking gun

New Health District board digs through documents attempting to find incriminating evidence against outgoing officials
by: Tyler Graf THOUSANDS OF PAGES – St. Helens resident Nancy Whitney (left), who has been critical of Columbia Health District spending, holds her hand to her head Monday morning while pouring over the district’s financial documents with new board member Peggy Crisp.

Hidden away in a back office at the old Columbia County Courthouse two members of the newly sworn-in Columbia Health District board poured over thousands of pages of documents Monday morning, searching for an elusive smoking gun. New board members Tammy Maygra and Peggy Crisp - joined by Nancy Whitney, a vocal opponent of the previous health district leadership - combed through endless piles of invoices during their first official day at their new office, looking for something incriminating to pin on the prior board.

Despite the daunting nature of perusing the documents now at their disposal, they say their goal is - just like their candidacy promise - to hold the previous board accountable for how it spent CHD's tax revenue and determine what knowledge, if any, the county had about the spending.

But it's clear that there is some resentment toward the county's elected officials, including county commissioners, who the new board claim were aware of what they see as the health district's mismanagement of its finances.

Opening one document, a memo between the county and the previous CHD board, Maygra said she wanted to 'see if we can nail the county commissioners on something.'

Piles of documents

Making the transition more difficult is the fact that the transition of power amounts to a document dump, in the new board's opinion. The board was left with one computer, stripped of most software, and piles of documents - invoices, emails and photocopied checks - lacking clear historical context.

But even though the previous CHD board spelled out how much tax money the district spent prior to leaving office - more than $4 million, including hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney and consulting fees, in a failed attempt to build a publicly funded hospital - the latest avalanche of documents more clearly highlights the previous board's spending habits both before and after the district's protracted two-part attempt to obtain a 'certificate of need' to build the hospital from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

For one, attorney Peter Stoloff, who worked as legal counsel on the certificate of need process, billed the district $203,107 for his work on the hospital project between Feb. 28, 2010 and Oct. 31, 2010.

The state twice denied CHD's request, saying the south Columbia County area was sufficiently served by hospitals in Portland and Longview, Wash.

Another invoice showed St. Helens-based Acti-Dyne was paid $5,000 for its work on a public poll leading up to a vote on ballot measure 5-209 last November.

The poll indicated that health district residents supported the hospital and that the measure would fail in the lead up to the vote. But when the vote was tabulated on Nov. 2, the measure passed by an overwhelming margin, seemingly contradicting the poll's conclusion.

Even more documents show that in a one-month period, from Jan. 3 to Jan 31, 2011, the health district's law firm Bullard Law invoiced CHD for $32,309. In February, the bill was $14,873, including $9,455 to one attorney for 31 hours of work.

Board questions if they were given all records

Despite the volume of new information at their disposal, members of the new health district board grumble that they don't have all the resources they need to conduct their business. They also say there was co-mingling of resources between the former CHD board and public health officials.

For example, the new board points to two checks for $47,021 and $37,640 from the health district to public health, which were signed by Public Health Administrator Karen Ladd. Invoices for the health district's attorneys also show many conversations took place via email and by phone with Ladd, who spent some of her time working on the hospital project.

E-mail correspondence was stored on a compact disc, which the current health district's computer cannot read.

That computer - purchased by the CHD but used at public health's Gable Road office -was wiped clean to protect patient records, said County Commissioner Henry Heimuller, who is assisting in the transition between boards.

The cross-pollination of resources has made it unclear to new board members whether they've received every shred of information relating to the health district and its failed hospital project, Whitney said.

'It's all just so co-mingled,' Maygra said, adding that the lines of communication have broken down between the CHD and the Public Health Authority, making it difficult to decipher the meaning of some financial records. 'It should have all been separate.'

By law, an outgoing government body is required to transfer all documents necessary for the newly elected officials to conduct their business, said Tony Green, spokesman for the state's Attorney General's office.

'People change (on boards) all the time,' he said, 'but government should stay the same.'

Outgoing boards aren't required to make it easy for incoming members, however.

Laura Cooper is a partner with Ball Janik in Bend and works as legal counsel for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, of which The Spotlight is a member. She said the CHD transfer of power, including passing on a stripped-down computer, doesn't appear illegal, but it does appear antagonistic.

'It could [simply] be childish retribution,' Cooper said, 'like I'm going to take my marbles and go home. But that costs time and energy to do that.'