Chairman Bryan Lober and Health First CARES Act Funding: Unethical or Illegal Quid-Pro-Quo or Just Hardball Negotiating Tactics?
By Space Coast Daily // September 29, 2020
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Unethical or illegal Quid-pro-quo or just hardball negotiating tactics? That is the question after a series of communications between Brevard County Commission Chairman Bryan Lober and Health First over CARES Act funding emerged into public view last month.
Enacted in March, the CARES Act includes $150 billion in relief to state and local governments to cover healthcare-related costs incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brevard County is currently in the process of granting over $105 million in CARES Act relief to qualifying local businesses, not-for-profits, and individuals.
The county is considering granting CARES Act funds to local Brevard healthcare providers to help cover COVID-19 costs, including approximately $7 million for Health First, Brevard’s largest provider.
The controversy began with an August 7 email from Lober appearing to condition the granting of CARES Act dollars on a commitment by Health First to match a portion of the funds on public improvement projects, including one project located in his commission district. The projects are not related to healthcare.
In his communication, Lober requested “Health First match no less than 80% of any and all CARES Act funding allocated to them, by the County, and earmark this match toward the improvement of public areas surrounding their facilities, including no less than $1.25M allocated to the public park adjacent to the Veteran’s Memorial Center.”
A second email on August 7 from Lober stated, “I have no qualms giving Health First tremendous positive publicity for their contributions to the VMC park. I would support naming the bandshell after them and providing additional recognition.”
Lober again communicated to Health First on August 13 writing that if he did receive a response to his request, “it is exceedingly likely that the terms offered to them will no longer remain nearly as favorable as those initially communicated (e.g., instead of 80/20, it may become 90/10).”
These communications came on the heels of Commissioner Lober attacking the company in July for not publicly endorsing a mandatory mask policy considered by the County Commission.
In response to Commissioner Lober’s communications, Health First General Counsel Nicholas Romanello wrote to Brevard County Attorney Eden Bentley on August 19.
Romanello said, “Taken together, the emails of August 7 and 13 appear, at best, as a misuse of the Chair’s public position or prohibited exaction and, at worst, suggest an unlawful scheme to contravene the intended purpose of Federal CARES Act funding.”
Lober quickly rescinded his demand that Health First match potential CARES Act dollars to public projects. Lober wrote in an August 19 response, “The implication that there could be any sort of behind-the-scenes approval to allocate the over $7M requested by Health First is ludicrous.”
However, public records indicate the $7 million in question came from Brevard County staff, not Health First.
In June, County Manager Frank Abbate wrote to Health First President and CEO Steve Johnson seeking information on unreimbursed costs incurred by Health First as a result of COVID-19, including PPE, staffing, and retrofits of hospital facilities.
Abbate concluded his email by informing Johnson staff would share this information with the County Commission in July.
For now, the controversy over Commissioner Lober’s emails remains unresolved. Health First requested to the County Attorney that Lober recuse himself from any votes on CARES Act funding related to healthcare or any votes relating to Health First, demands that Commissioner Lober strongly rejected.
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, Health First will not be commenting at this time,” said Nicholas Romanello, General Counsel for Health First.
More recent communications in mid-September reveal Commissioner Lober asked Parrish to also match a portion of potential CARES Act funding, however, he set their threshold at only 20 percent.
The County Commission is expected to vote on whether to grant CARES Act funding to Parrish Healthcare, Steward Medical Group, and Health First in the coming weeks.