Strong-arm tactics. Improper use of state funds. Retaliation over a lawsuit.
Those are some of the accusations flying around a sharp-edged conflict between a state agency and a Coastal Georgia health services organization.
But it’s not been just talk. The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) recently took control of Gateway Behavioral Health Services, firing its CEO and asking its chairman to resign.
“There are indications that Gateway no longer has the fiscal ability to continue to provide contracted services,’’ said a July 18 letter from Frank Berry, the DBHDD commissioner, to Gateway. The letter cited a Gateway deficit of $3.9 million in fiscal 2012.
“In addition, we have received numerous allegations of mismanagement that at this stage warrant the department’s intervention,’’ the letter added. “Furthermore, it would appear that Gateway has potentially misused state and federal funds.’’
Gateway’s lawyer, however, says the state’s seizure of control and firing of the CEO “without cause, reason or explanation” are retaliation for a lawsuit that Gateway has filed against DBHDD. The suit alleges the state owes Gateway more than $1 million in reduced payments.
David Will, the attorney, said in a recently amended complaint that the firing and request for resignation came Aug. 28 – the same day that a date was confirmed for mediation of the lawsuit.
Gateway is one of 26 community service boards (CSBs), which are quasi-governmental safety-net agencies that serve more than 175,000 Georgians who have developmental disabilities or have mental health or substance abuse problems. Gateway serves the counties of Glynn, Camden, McIntosh, Long, Liberty, Bryan, Chatham and Effingham.
Berry, a former head of a CSB himself, put David Crews in charge of Gateway in July.
Last month, Barbara Meyers, a longtime Gateway employee, was fired as CEO. She had been in that position only since July 1. Then Crews asked for the resignation of Howard Lynn, the board chairman.
“I don’t believe there’s a basis to fire the CSB director except for retaliation of some kind.” Will told GHN.
Meyers said the firing came as a shock. She said the state is using “strong-arm, bullying tactics.’’
“It’s interesting that they’d get rid of two representatives of Gateway to prevent us from going to mediation,’’ she said.
The two sides agree on one thing: Gateway, which has a budget of more than $30 million, has been in financial trouble for several years.
The state agency declined to comment on the lawsuit, noting that it is ongoing litigation. Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for DBHDD, said that it also wouldn’t comment on the termination of Meyers, saying it’s the agency policy not to comment on personnel matters.
He said Lynn was asked to resign “to allow a timely and successful assessment of Gateway.” Crews will submit a report on the financial condition of the CSB.
The state is countersuing Gateway, saying that it is owed $2.6 million from state loans made to the CSB in 2005.
Lynn said he will not step down as chairman until he is made to do so by either Berry or Gov. Nathan Deal, the Brunswick News reported.
Crews said more than $60,000 in contracts for electrical services for a St. Marys bottling plan that Gateway runs were awarded to a company owned by Lynn, the Brunswick News reported last week.
Lynn said his company provided the labor and expertise for free, and said the funds paid by the board went toward the purchase of needed materials, according to the newspaper.
Crews characterized the contracts as improper. The Brunswick newspaper reported that Crews also confirmed that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been diverted from state funding intended for other areas of service provided by Gateway to the bottling plant, opened in 2005 to offer supported employment for the developmentally disabled.
“The problem is that it is too expensive to operate,” Crews said.
Meanwhile, anonymous letters from “Gateway Employees’’ have claimed widespread mismanagement of the organization.
Some of those letters have reached the Georgia Association of Community Service Boards.
Robyn Garrett-Gunnoe, the association’s director, said this week that the organization is not involved in the Gateway dispute.
“Our support and concern are for the consumers,’’ she said.