Directors of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) voted Wednesday night, March 25, to file a formal complaint against their former attorney with the California State Bar Association.
“This is a mechanism to remove a bad apple from the profession,” said TLHCD director Xavier Avila before the board voted unanimously to approve making the complaint. “If you’re driving down the road and you see an obstruction, a branch laying in the way, you remove it.”
Avila was describing the TLHCD’s former general counsel Bruce Greene.
From May of 2015 through late July of 2017, Greene, a partner with the Cleveland, Ohio-based law firm Baker Hostetler, served as general counsel for the TLHCD, while at the same time representing the management firm hired to oversee operations at Tulare Regional Medical Center, Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), and its co-owner and CEO Dr. Yorai Benzeevi.
That dual representation, the district now alleges, created a conflict of interest on Greene’s part.
“While acting as legal counsel for both the District and the Benzeevi Group, Bruce Greene engaged in multiple acts of deceit for the sole purpose of financially benefiting himself, the Baker law firm and the Benzeevi Group,” according to the text of the complaint the TLHCD authorized.
Further, the text of the complaint alleges that Greene worked to keep Senovia Gutierrez, who was elected by TLHCD voters to replace Dr. Parmod Kumar, from assuming her seat on the TLHCD Board of Directors. Greene, the district alleges, continued to represent himself as the TLHCD’s attorney after his contract had been vacated. He did so, the complaint says, in order to facilitate the sale of $3 million in district property by former CEO Benzeevi. Of that sum, $500,000 was “funneled” to Greene to pay an outstanding debt.
“The district contends that these deceitful acts involve moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption… ,” according to TLHCD’s complaint to the State Bar.
Protecting the Public Interest
The complaint was written by Visalia attorney Michael Lampe. In March of 2019, Lampe was retained by the TLHCD to represent it in a lawsuit against Greene and his firm on a separate matter in Kern County. In that action, the TLHCD alleges three former directors, with the help of Greene and his firm, breached their fiduciary duty to the district by giving Benzeevi and HCCA authority to borrow $22 million in the district’s name with the knowledge a portion of the proceeds would be used to pay Greene.
The complaint also alleges that for more than two years Greene and Baker Hostetler have refused to produce “client papers, materials and property.” That failure, Lampe alleges in his letter to the State Bar, is an attempt to obstruct an investigation by the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, as well as to complicate the TLHCD’s civil suit against Greene and his firm. To date, more than 50 search warrants have been served by the DA, including searches of Benzeevi’s home, the Tulare hospital, the residence of HCCA’s former chief financial officer and a handful of the financial institutions with which TLHCD did business under HCCA management.
Before their March 25 vote, TLHCD directors made it clear they see the complaint as a means of protecting the public.
“I think we’ve known for a while that we’ve been concerned with protecting the public interest,” said TLHCD President Kevin Northcraft.
In voicing his support for the complaint to the State Bar, Avila said singling out Greene was the right thing to do.
“There’s a lot of ethical attorneys, and Bruce Greene is not one,” said Avila. “I see this as a service to people to get a bad actor out of that profession.”
Greene and Firm May Sue TLHCD
While Greene and his attorney, James Murphy, did not respond directly to requests by the Valley Voice for comment, they did forward a letter from Murphy to Lampe and the TLHCD. In his letter, Murphy alleges the district is attempting to put pressure on Greene and his law firm regarding the civil suit filed against them by the TLHCD, calling it a “mere litigation tactic.”
Murphy said disclosing the district’s intent to file the complaint was “very telling” and implied the action may amount to a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct on the part of the TLHCD’s current general counsel. He also threatened the TLHCD with future litigation.
“The fact of making the proposed complaint public is evidence of the District’s bad faith and may subject the and its Board members to a damage claim by Mr. Greene and the law firm, which they expressly reserve the right to make,” Murphy’s letter to Lampe states.
TLHCD Attorneys React
Since the publication of this article, both Lampe and Todd Wynkoop, TLHCD’s general counsel, provided additional information about the accusations contained in the letter Murphy provided to the Valley Voice.
Specifically, both attorneys specifically denied any connection between a complaint to the State Bar about Greene’s conduct and the TLHCD’s pending civil lawsuit against him. Murphy’s letter directly accuses Lampe and the district of filing a complaint against Greene “to pressure the firm and Mr. Greene in the ongoing lawsuit…”
“That absolutely isn’t what happened,” said Wynkoop.
Wynkoop maintains that he and Northcraft had discussed the need to file a complaint against Greene with the State Bar at least a year and a half ago, prior to the filing of the civil suit against him.
“They’re two separate and distinct processes that will go their separate courses,” Wynkoop said.
Lampe’s Letter to Murphy
Lampe has provided the Valley Voice his written response to Murphy’s letter, in which Lampe reiterated the complaint and the lawsuit were unrelated.
“As I previously advised you in writing,” Lampe wrote to Murphy, “the proposed State Bar complaint is procedurally unrelated to the civil litigation now pending.”
Lampe also addressed Murphy’s assertion the decision to file a complaint against Greene “raises issues” for Wynkoop as the TLHCD’s general counsel as regards the Rules of Professional Conduct.
“Please know the proposed complaint was drafted by me in its entirety. Any issue that you think may arise under Rule 3.10 falls on my shoulders alone,” Lampe wrote.
He also invited Murphy to file his own complaint against Lampe with the State Bar.
“I will not hold it against you,” Lampe wrote, “and am confident nothing will come of it.”
In closing, Lampe invited Murphy to point out what portions of the complaint he believes are “factually inaccurate or legally unsupportable,” as Murphy had stated in his letter to Lampe.
TLHCD Required to Publish Bar Complaint
According to Wynkoop, Murphy’s main accusation — that the district acted inappropriately in openly discussing its intent to make a complaint to the State Bar about Greene and openly publishing the text of that complaint — is unfounded.
“Those were both required by the Brown Act that the board acts under,” Wynkoop said.
While the Brown Act does allow certain topics to be considered behind closed doors, such as pending litigation, personnel negotiations and real property purchase negotiations, Wynkoop felt such opacity wasn’t warranted in this case.
“I determined it didn’t meet any of the exceptions,” he said.
Further, Wynkoop said the Brown Act requires making public supporting documents whenever TLHCD directors discuss an issue in an open session.
“Once they’d signed it, we would have to publish on the district’s website,” he said.
Representing public entities is a “niche subject” in law practice, and Wynkoop was unsure Murphy understood the requirements under which bodies like the TLHCD must operate. Were their roles reversed, Wynkoop said his reaction would have been much the same as Murphy’s.
“I’m sure I’d ask the same questions,” Wynkoop said.