Whispers were prelude to a federal indictment
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Daily Southtown reporter Alice Hohl told her editor "something sneaky" was going on at the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.
Plans to build two hospitals in the southwest suburbs were shot down by the board for failing to meet its criteria.
But a plan for a 70-bed hospital in Crystal Lake was approved that day, even though the same project had been rejected by the board a few months earlier. It was the first new hospital approved by the Health Facilities Planning Board in almost 25 years.
During a vote April 21, 2004, on whether to approve construction of the new hospital, Hohl observed what she thought was some very odd behavior on the part of the board members.
"In the middle of the vote," Hohl would later write, "the roll call was halted as (board members Thomas) Beck and (Stuart) Levine whispered to each. Levine then approached Dr. Imad Alamanseer, who had voted 'pass' instead of 'yes' or 'no.'
"After another whispered conversation between Levine and Alamanseer, Alamanseer changed his 'pass' to 'yes,' providing the vote needed to approve the project."
As I recall, no other newspaper account of the meeting made much of the whispering exchanges between board members.
Within two months, Levine was forced to issue a letter of resignation to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
A few weeks later, Hohl reported that several members of the board had received federal subpoenas.
On Monday, Levine was taken into custody by FBI agents and brought before a federal judge on charges of alleged kickbacks, influence-peddling and insider dealing.
Also charged were Jacob Kiferbaum, 52, the head of a Deerfield-based construction firm, and P. Nicholas Hurtgen, 42, a former aide to one-time Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and a former senior managing partner for Bear Stearns & Company's office in Chicago.
Levine is accused of using his role on the state panel to block hospital projects unless Kiferbaum built them.
When Mercy Health Systems indicated it wanted to build a hospital in Crystal Lake, according to the federal government, Levine told Kiferbaum he wanted $1.5 million from him if the new hospital won planning board approval.
Although the board initially rejected Mercy's plan, it reversed itself after the hospital hired Kiferbaum as a contractor.
That second vote was about to fall apart, according to federal prosecutors, when Levine whispered in another board member's ear, as Hohl noted in her story.
"I had covered Cook County Board meetings and even there, even at the Cook County Board, had never seen anything like the unprofessional behavior I saw that day (at the Health Facilities Planning Board)," Hohl told me Tuesday.
Hohl left the Southtown last year after giving birth to a girl, who is now 5 months old.
I asked her to describe the Health Facilities Planning Board session she witnessed.
"Well, you had Alamanseer voting 'pass' on a very important project," Hohl said.
"How can you vote 'pass?' He didn't even abstain. It was obvious that he was waiting for direction, some clue, of how he was supposed to vote.
"And then the vote is just stopped as Beck and Levine begin talking to each other, whispering.
"Then Levine walks over to Alamanseer and whispers something to him.
"And then Alamanseer votes 'yes.'
"I admit that I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, that reporters sometimes get, after I wrote the story.
"I wondered if I made too big a deal about the whispered exchange.
"But the next day, I came into the office, and I start getting all these calls from people who had dealt with the Health Facilities Planning Board.
"They all want to tell me their stories. They're all congratulating me for noticing something's wrong there.
"So I knew I got it right.
"And, yes, there's a feeling of vindication now that the charges have been filed against Levine."
I don't mean to imply that Hohl deserves credit for the federal investigation.
The chief executive for Edwards Hospital in Naperville, which had seen its plan to expand into Plainfield rejected, worked with the FBI to arrange a sting of Levine and his crew.
Having been turned down by the health board, the Edwards' executive wore a wire to a restaurant meeting with Kiferbaum, during which Levine stopped by and mentioned Kiferbaum "could be trusted."
Hohl was sharp enough, though, to see that something was wrong at a public meeting and report it.
Not long after that, public pressure built on the governor to replace the entire board.
Plans to build a new hospital in the southwest suburbs have never been approved.
Phil Kadner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-6787.