A witness who seemed to be a key player for the defense came to the government’s aid Tuesday with testimony that was meant to show how a tag team of Rodney Miller Sr. and Amos Carty Jr. played office politics while operating at the helm of Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC).
Maureen Venzen, the hospital’s former vice president of administration and ancillary services, has long been referenced by Miller defense attorney Alan Teague as one of several employees that received pay increases outside of her official government salary — a practice that Teague and Carty defense attorney Anthony Chambers have argued was commonplace at the hospital.
But Venzen was brought to the stand Tuesday as a government witness, who testified that Miller, with Carty in tow, began to shake things up after he came on board in 2002 — but not, according to Venzen, for the better.
She said that prior to Miller’s tenure, members of the hospital’s senior leadership team, of which she was a part, met regularly during the year to discuss operations and often attended hospital board meetings to keep its members apprised of what was going on.
Venzen said the flow of those meetings was initially maintained when Miller took over but eventually began to change.
"We would be in the meeting giving our report and Mr. Miller and attorney Carty would be texting each other or something — that was a concern," Venzen said under questioning from prosecuting attorney Esther Walters.
Venzen added that five of the eight senior leaders — minus Carty, former chief financial officer Peter Najawicz and the hospital’s chief nursing officer — were then told they did not have to attend the board meetings.
In opening arguments a few weeks ago, prosecuting attorneys had argued that Miller, Carty and Najawicz — all on trial for a range of corruption and embezzlement charges — worked as a "cohesive unit" to the exclusion of other hospital staff, which board members appeared not to notice since Miller was busy making improvements.
Among the more positive changes was the hospital’s accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) — an occasion that Venzen said Tuesday was heralded with bonuses to members of SRMC’s senior leadership team.
Venzen said prior to Miller’s tenure, 100 percent of her official salary was reflected in her Notice of Personnel Action (a government document that, among other things, lists an employee’s position and salary).
Testimony earlier in the trial from V.I. Personnel Director Kenneth Hermon indicated that any changes in an employee’s salary, whether a bonus or anactual raise, is documented with a new NOPA that is added on or included in that employee’s file.
Venzen said Tuesday that while the senior leaders were told that a NOPA reflecting their accreditation bonus would be forthcoming, they were, in the meantime, paid through stipend/additional compensation agreements that she said were generally not used before Miller came on board.
Venzen said her bonus payments were made electronically, through transfers to her bank account, and did not initially include withholdings for taxes.
Venzen said she eventually contacted the hospital’s Human Resources division to have the taxes removed, but at the end of the year, was issued a 1099 for the payments that were not.
While the judge and defense attorneys have made clear this is not a tax case, prosecutors have been allowed to present certain related information — which, in previous days, has included testimony that no 1099s were found on file at the Finance Department for Miller, Carty and Najawicz, who also received stipend/additional compensation agreements.
Venzen’s testimony took a turn after Walters continued to probe about the accreditation and subsequent follow-ups by JCAHO surveyors to make sure that SRMC’s operations were still being maintained according to their standards.
Venzen said she had accompanied the surveyors on one of their visits in 2005 to the hospital’s laboratory, which turned up a variety of documentation issues that Venzen said had affected its certification.
While the lab was under her purview, Venzen said later that there were managers and supervisor that oversaw the day-to-day operations.
Venzen said that Miller, accompanied by Carty, subsequently called her into his office to discuss the findings and asked if the lab’s director should be held accountable for what had happened.
"I said ‘no,’" Venzen said, adding that she explained to Miller that even though the lab had done its technical work, it had not been documenting its activities in accordance with the JHACO regulations.
"I told him that it was a learning experience for us," Venzen said Tuesday.
But Venzen said she had been advised that Miller wanted to fire her and was not surprised when Carty presented her with a paper saying that she was "voluntarily resigning" from her position at the hospital. The paper included a severance package, where Venzen’s benefits would continue for three months after she left.
While on the stand, Venzen told Walters she was "uncomfortable at the hospital" and was at that point ready to leave but did not accept the resignation package as it was offered. She asked for, and was granted, additional stipulations, including a promise from Miller that she would not be "escorted out" by security as other employees had been in previous months.
Switching gears, Venzen — who now works as chief of health insurance under the Personnel Division — also offered testimony on Miller’s, Carty’s and Najawicz’s health insurance packages with the hospital, which she said is more than what the government offers.
Miller’s life insurance package was $3.7 million, while Carty’s and Najawicz’s were $1.9 million.
"No one in government has a policy exceeding $400,000, not even the governor or members of the judiciary," she said. Venzen later added that the hospital was sent a letter from Personnel in 2006-2007 saying that it was behind in its insurance payments and would be cut off if the balance was not brought up to date.
While Teague did not hit upon the insurance information during cross-examination, he did counter Venzen’s claims of being presented by Carty with a voluntary resignation letter. Through his questioning, Teague implied that JHACO surveyors had raised issues with the lab in 2003, which were still not fixed at the time of the 2005 walk-through.
While Venzen told Teague she had "no knowledge of that," Teague further implied that the hospital’s former head was taking the necessary steps to hold Venzen accountable, but presented her with the option of either being fired or voluntarily resigning.
Venzen said she was not given an option and did not know for sure at that point that she was being fired.
Chambers picked up where Teague left off in his cross-examination and pointed out that Venzen’s resignation was a done deal by the time she had walked into the office. Taking it a step further, he began to discuss the terms of confidentiality agreement that was said to have been included in the resignation package, barring Venzen from making public what had happened.
"It said you can’t badmouth the hospital, and the hospital won’t say that you lost the certification for the laboratory, correct?" Chambers asked.
"Correct," Venzen responded.
Chambers hit home that point a few more times before he wrapped up, asking Venzen if she was responsible for the lab’s "failures," since it came under her general purview.
"No," Venzen responded.
Under re-direct from Walters, however, Venzen said there was no clause in the confidentiality agreement that would have prevented hospital officials from speaking ill about her.
The trial picks up at 9 a.m. Wednesday.