Rather than acting as “Supervisors” who oversee the actions of their subordinates, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors prefers to insult the messenger, in this case the Mendocino County Grand Jury. The GJ's sin? They described an “appearance of a conflict of interest” on the part of Mendo’s Mental Health Director Tom Pinizzotto.
At its Tuesday (26th of August) meeting the Supervisors declared that the process of privatizating of County Mental Health services to a private business called Ortner Management Group, Pinizzotto's former employer, was hunky-dory. Then the Supes approved a letter denouncing the Grand Jury for even suggesting that Pinizzotto's conflict could possibly be untoward, if not crooked. The Supervisors pounced on the messenger:
“The Board of Supervisors believes this Grand Jury report was written in a way that unfairly impugns the integrity of an individual and the process for awarding contracts for mental health services. The report found no evidence that any individual had an actual conflict of interest, profited personally, committed any illegal actions, or exercised undue influence concerning the process for awarding the contracts in question.”
One more time: Mr. Pinizzotto, previously employed by a privately operated mental health services company based in Marysville, in his new capacity as a Director of Mendocino County Mental Health, a public entity, arranges the sale of Mendocino County Mental Health to his previous employer, Ortner Management Group. The multi-year deal is worth now worth over $6.7 million a year to Ortner. Mr. P, of course, continues to draw about a hundred thou a year as director of the now mostly privatized public agency, Mendocino County Mental Health.
That pillar of ethical conduct, Supervisor Dan Hamburg, commented, “It’s pretty obvious that there’s a huge disconnect between the Grand Jury and this board. What is the Grand Jury really up to? I really have to shake my head?”
Hamburg added that many people in his district are “really inflamed.”
Really? Names! We've talked to people “inflamed” at the breathtaking sleaziness involved here, but who could possibly be “inflamed” at the GJ for simply pointing out the obvious.
“I agree,” chipped in Supervisor John McCowen who drafted the memo denouncing the Grand Jury. “The memo is intended to ask the Grand Jury to take a look at what they are doing and why.”
Please. The GJ has hidden motives here?
First off, the Grand Jury never accused Pinizzotto of personally profiting, committing any illegal actions or exercising undue influence; in fact the GJ went to great lengths to note that they weren't accusing Mr. P of actual wrongdoing. (In our opinion, the GJ was much kinder than they needed to be.)
The “appearance of a conflict of interest” is true on its face because the contract was awarded to Pinizzotto’s RECENT former employer, a simple fact that is not in dispute. Indeed, that simple fact makes it an ACTUAL conflict of interest, not just an “appearance” of a conflict of interest because the conflict arises from the SITUATION, not from identifiable personal aggrandizement on the part of the conflicter.
In every day court cases, judges and jurors routinely recuse themselves from involvement in matters they have, or have had, some personal involvement with — i.e., a conflict of interest — even though there may not be any actual bias or favor, because such things, including government contracts, should be free of the taint of a conflict and not be subject to a later complaint that the decider was influenced by anything other than the merits of the case.
But here we have the County Board of Supervisors not only approving a LEGAL conflict of interest in County contracting, but denouncing the Grand Jury for pointing it out.
And who should show up before the Supervisors to laud the Supes for their indictment of the Grand Jury for simply doing its job? Tom Pinizzotto!
Pinizzotto is paid over of $90,000 by his new employers, Mendocino County. A smarmy little fellow of the type prevalent at the County's power levers, Pinizzotto read out a tedious paean to what a swell job his former employer is now doing for the people of Mendocino County!
But Pinizzotto obviously steered the luscious contract for adult mental health services to his former employer, Ortner. In addition to the flat out denial issued by the Supes, they also agreed to send the “memorandum” to the Grand Jury, apparently authored by Supervisor McCowen, chastizing the GJ for even dreaming that the emperor has no clothes.
The Supes' memo does not deny that there was an APPEARANCE of a conflict of interest, something even someone with a white cane could readily discern, but focused on the lack of EVIDENCE of an ACTUAL conflict of interest. As if there’s a difference.
An HHSA (Health & Human Services Agency) insider offered another perspective: “The real conflict was in favor of Redwood Children's Services (RCS) who has successfully contracted for children's mental health services for at least a dozen years. RCS is run by Camille Schrader who went through the foster child system herself. Despite her success with RCS she was reluctant to bid on the adult mental health services so she brought in Ortner to make a joint bid. The way the bid was structured it wasn't a choice between Ortner and Optum (the other bidder), but between Ortner+RCS and Optum. There was no way to pick RCS without picking Ortner. And there was no way all the caring professionals, most of them fastened to the children like leeches, were going to stand by and let RCS go down the tubes.
“Remember Mendo Futures? All the local poverty pimps met for months under the guidance of Carol Mordhorst to draft a response to the RFP before the RFP ever came out. All the usual suspects were at the table and all were heavily invested in hanging onto their individual slices of the poverty pimp pie. RCS and Ortner were assuring everyone that they would continue to subcontract with them once they won the contract. There was no such assurance with Optum.” According to this insider, “the real conflict wasn't Pinizzotto and Ortner, but the cadre of local poverty pimps rallying around RCS. Anyone on the interview panel who voted to dump RCS and go with Optum would have been run out of town.”
There are two separate, but related, issues involved in the Grand Jury’s two reports on County Mental Health. The first, “An Appearance of a Conflict of Interest,” makes a bulletproof case that the County’s decision to turn over $6.7 million in annual Mental Health services to the private company that County's present Mental Health Director, Tom Pinizzotto, used to work for, looks fishy.
Rather than dispute the obvious point that the deal is highly suspicious and Pinizzotto's role as facilitator even more suspicious, the Supervisors and CEO Carmel Angelo, insist that since there’s no documentation proving that Pinizzotto personally profited from the lucrative giveaway of public services, there’s no problem. If the County admitted that there clearly was a Conflict of Interest, they’d have to do something about it (such as put the work out to bid again with Pinizzotto out of the loop) and nobody in County management wants to do that.
If this deal had gone down any other place, the GJ would have taken the next step — subpoenas for all involved and their financial records, not that it's likely that either the Superior Court or the DA would support such a move in a county where year after year Grand Jury reports are simply ignored.
To us, it seems obvious that the County has painted itself into a corner by allowing the conflict to occur in the first place.
Then we have the separate larger issue of whether Pinizzotto’s former employer, Ortner Management Group, is doing a better job than the now privatized County staff was doing pre-Ortner.
Guess who reports to the Supervisors on Ortner? Pinizzotto, in his new capacity as a Director of residual Mental Health services. He of course tells the Supervisors everything is simply swell, nevermind the occasional Jail suicide of an Ortner “client.”
Last October, when the Board of Supervisors received a report on the status of Mental Health privatization, we wrote,
“An Ortner item is scheduled for 1:35pm just before closed session, which makes it look like someone, (probably County Admin), doesn't think there is much to talk about with the new mental health contracts. (Ortner is the owner, basically, of one of Mendocino County's freshly privatized mental health contracts/organizations.) We think it's all quite suspicious, and hope the Grand Jury is also following it. Ortner operates a “secure facility” in Yuba City to which seriously disturbed Mendo persons are sequestered at the rate of more than $800 a day. A fellow named Pinizzotto is steering the deal. He was hired from Ortner two years ago as Mendocino County's Mental Health Director and instructed to privatize the County's mental health services. Guess who got the $6.7 million annual contract? Pinizzotto's old boss, Ortner.
“The background of all this is described more formally in the County's chaste description: ‘On May 21st the Board approved two contracts to privatize the County’s Mental Health services. The adult services contract was awarded to the Ortner Management Group (OMG) and mental health services for children was awarded to Redwood Quality Management Company (RQMC). The contracts took effect on July 1, 2013. Services are currently transitioning from Mendocino County HHSA Behavioral Health to OMG and RQMC. This report will cover an overview of the transition process up to the current day and will outline accomplishments and adjustments. Participants in this presentation will be from HHSA, OMG and RQMC.’
“In other words, the contractors will report on themselves with, as it has duly turned out, Pinizzotto doing the reporting. According to the accompanying staff report, the Yuba City-based Ortner Management Group has subcontracted the actual ‘service’ to several local non-profit organizations who have the following caseloads: Manzanita Services, Inc. — 52 clients, 2.0 Care Managers total (currently); Ford Street Project — 9 Clients, 1.0 Care Managers total (currently); Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center, 30 Clients; 1.5 Care Managers total (currently); (Supervisory staff not included in above staffing numbers) Private providers (Therapy) — 13 clients; Medication only clients — 210 clients currently managed by Mendocino County BHRS (Behavioral Health and Recovery Services) to be transitioned to OMG Medication Management providers.
“Does this look like $6.7 million worth of ANNUAL public dollars to you?
“A major turnover of local public services worth millions of public dollars was allotted ten minutes public expression. And there was no public present to complain. The presentation of the fancy-schmancy charts and graphs will easily take up the 25 minutes set aside. But from what we’ve heard and read, some of it in these pages, there’s lots to talk about concerning the shift from County-run mental health to privately-run mental health.
“Children's Mental Health was already being contracted out to Redwood Children's Services with few complaints because, like adult mental health records, children's records are sealed, and both ‘client’ groups derive overwhelmingly from the unprotected social class of Mendocino County, it is no surprise that Redwood has continued to be granted annual millions to provide ‘services’.”
Almost a year later now, we re-reviewed the video of that October 2013 Board of Supes meeting. Most of the time allotted was taken up by Ms. Cryer (Pinizzotto’s boss), Pinizzotto, a Mr. Mark Montgomery of Ortner Management Group, the chair of the Mendo Mental Health Advisory Board (who basically said there still wasn’t much mental health service outside of Ukiah) and representatives of some of Ortner’s subcontractors — all of whom robotically said things were going fine.
Individual supervisors also said they thought everything was simply wonderful. There were some pro forma questions about how the MediCal billing was working. (Nobody asked about service delivery itself.) Board Chair (at the time) the putative “liberal” Dan Hamburg, concluded: “There’s a degree of justified optimism that we did make a good decision and we are moving forward.”
Translation: We made a good decision and anyone who thinks otherwise should sign up as an Ortner client. (Mendo dissidents are inevitably insulted by local authority because dismissing them as crazy or simply wrong is easier than actually debating issues.)
Pinizzotto, whose connections to the contractor performing the work are well documented, is STILL in charge of the reporting — or NON-reporting, since the Board has not had a report on Mental health for almost a year since the happy-talk version last October in which Mr. Pinizzotto told the Board how great he and his former employer was doing.
The upshot of all this is that we’re stuck with what we’ve got — including the huge turnover of millions of dollars of tax money under highly suspicious circumstances — and there’s effectively no way to raise questions because Official Mendocino County won’t cop to the obvious — and ongoing — conflict of interest involving Pinizzotto. The Supes did, however, go to the trouble of officially denouncing the Grand Jury for pointing it out.
Pinizzotto and the Mendocino County Superior Court.
Supervisor Hamburg's mentally troubled son Matt has been, and may still be, a client of Ortner Management Group. As reported last year by Bruce McEwen, Pinizzotto appeared in court with young Hamburg to recommend that he be jumped to the head of Mendocino County's acutely mentally ill cadre, which is perennially backed up at the County Jail. Young Hamburg was to be priority-placed at the Ortner facility in Yolo County. Which he was. The Hamburg placement was made at County expense with the Superior Court subsequently exempting Hamburg, a wealthy man, from any financial responsibility for his son's care.