The Tulare County District Attorney’s office may be forced to recuse itself from the long and winding cases against three former Tulare hospital leaders if the attorneys’ claims of bias against District Attorney Tim Ward hold up in court.
Attorneys representing Dr. Yorai ‘Benny’ Benzeevi, Bruce Greene and Alan Germany filed a motion on Tuesday that, if approved by Tulare County Superior Court Judge Michael Sheltzer, would force the recusal of the District Attorney’s office.
The motion alleges that Ward only began investigating the actions in Tulare after taking heat from the community – and that Benzeevi and Ward were friends before the political tide turned against HCCA and its management of Tulare Regional.
Benzeevi, Greene and Germany were charged with a laundry list of crimes in August 2020, centering around their time at Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), the company that managed Tulare Regional Medical Center from 2014 to 2017. After the company’s alleged mismanagement and a protracted campaign to remove HCCA from power at the hospital, it was forced to close and later reopened under the management of Adventist Health.
Benzeevi was the CEO of HCCA, and Germany served as HCCA’s CFO. Greene served as an attorney for HCCA and Benzeevi’s other companies; he also simultaneously represented the Tulare Local Healthcare District, the legal entity that owns Tulare Regional.
Benzeevi’s attorney McGregor Scott informed Sheltzer of the recusal motion during a Tuesday hearing initially meant to set a date for a preliminary hearing, in which a judge rules whether there is enough evidence to continue with a criminal case.
After nearly two years, a series of legal side-quests — the motion to recuse the district attorney’s office being the latest — has meant that a preliminary hearing still hasn’t been held in the case.
Scott told the court that he and attorneys representing Greene and Germany were seeking the recusal of the district attorney’s office, saying the motion was very “real” and “substantive.”
He also told the court that Benzeevi had found employment as a consultant to a Los Angeles-based physicians’ group, and asked the district attorney’s office to agree to a stipulation for Benzeevi to use those funds towards his legal and living expenses.
Trevor Holly, Supervising District Attorney, said that he couldn’t agree to such a stipulation since Scott hadn’t provided him with information on Benzeevi’s salary or employer. Holly also said he couldn’t agree to any stipulations if his judgment was being called into question through a recusal motion, since any decision he made could be reversible.
DA’s office: No conflict exists
In a response to the Valley Voice, Ward’s office states that it does not believe a conflict exists.
“On December 13, 2022, the Office of the District Attorney received the initial motion to recuse. However today we received approximately 1,400 additional pages. We are in the process of evaluating the defense arguments; however, the Office does not believe a conflict exists with this matter,” the statement reads.
“We have been in communication with the State Attorney General’s Office and will continue to work with them moving forward in opposing this motion by Defendant’s counsel,” the statement continues. “Once the Office of the District Attorney has had sufficient time to review the materials and coordinate with the Attorney General’s Office a formal response will be submitted to the Court.”
Benzeevi: Ward and I were friends — and I helped Ward move
During the time HCCA operated in Tulare County, Benzeevi’s companies bestowed their largesse to multiple politicians, including $12,000 in donations to Assemblyman Devon Mathis, $5,000 to Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, and $15,000 to Amy Shuklian during her initial campaign for the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.
(Mathis later gave $14,000 to the Tulare Hospital Foundation after Ward’s office filed charges against Benzeevi.)
According to the filing and supporting documents, Benzeevi might have shared more funds, and more time, with Ward than other county politicians.
“Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward and I visited in our homes and the homes of mutual friends, exchanged emails and text messages on our personal cell phones, and shared private meals and coffee meetings,” Benzeevi wrote in a declaration.
Benzeevi’s companies, including HCCA and Medflow, gave $24,000 to Ward’s re-election campaigns – $21,000 for the 2014 election cycle, and $3,000 for the 2018 election cycle. According to one filed email, Ward welcomed Benzeevi, amongst others, to “The Team” during his 2014 re-election campaign.
“Dr. Benzeevi was one of District Attorney Ward’s largest donors to his election campaigns, and the two frequently communicated through in-person meetings, emails, texts, and phone calls on District Attorney Ward’s personal phone,” the motion reads. “District Attorney Ward even invited Dr. Benzeevi to train the Tulare District Attorney’s Office on best practices for leadership and management.”
Ward allegedly asked Benzeevi to help him move to a new home, attended public events with Benzeevi, and even introduced Benzeevi to a California gubernatorial candidate.
The filing shows photos of Ward and Benzeevi together at multiple events, and a text message string in which Ward allegedly spoke dismissively of the Tulare County Grand Jury’s “Tower of Shame” report:
“Grand jury is releasing a report on us too. We didn’t file charges in a case. So, you aren’t the only ones…,” Ward writes in a text message to Benzeevi and Parmod Kumar, a former member of the Tulare Local Healthcare District board.
“They are evil,” Kumar responds.
“They are irrelevant,” Ward replies.
Ward appears to be referring to a section of the 2015-2016 Tulare County Grand Jury report entitled “Justice for All?” which criticized his office for not prosecuting jail staff for alleged physical abuse of an inmate.
Ward would later assist Benzeevi and HCCA in their efforts to pass Measure I, the 2016 Tulare hospital bond measure, the filing claims.
On May 2, 2016, the Tulare Local Healthcare District board voted to finalize the language of the bond measure, and on May 3, 2016, attorneys claim that Ward texted Benzeevi wishing him good luck:
“Good luck today…but you’re wrong…..Biggest day in the hospitals [sic] history was inking the deal with hccs [sic]… Without you, today would have never come,” the message reads.
Shifting political winds
The bond measure would later fail – with 66% voting “no.”
In 2016, the political winds surrounding Tulare Regional appeared to change: Measure I failed in August 2016. In November 2016, Kevin Northcraft and Mike Jamaica were elected to the hospital board on a platform to re-examine the district’s relationship with HCCA.
Northcraft and Jamaica were supported by Citizens for Hospital Accountability, a group formed to challenge HCCA’s management of the hospital and oppose Measure I. The group also succeeded in its efforts to recall Kumar and elect Senovia Gutierrez to take his place in 2017.
Though the Citizens group had pressured Ward to act at the time, and encouraged like-minded residents to reach out to his office, they have steadfastly supported him once his investigation began.
In a statement to the Voice, the group reiterated their support for his office and its investigation.
“Citizens for Hospital Accountability (CFHA) finds the motion filed by the defense attorneys for Benzeevi, Greene and Germany to be yet another frivolous attempt in a long line of tactics to delay the judicial process for years. From the outset, CFHA has demanded justice be brought for “the pillaging of public funds for private profit,” as cited by these defense attorneys as a quote attributed to CFHA [pg.4 – ft. 11]. We have yet to see justice be attained and we are keenly aware that these high-priced, out-of-town defense attorneys are hard at work making sure that justice is never realized,” the statement reads.
“We continue to support our local Tulare County District Attorney, Mr. Tim Ward, and his deputy, Mr. Trevor Holly, the Tulare County deputy district attorneys, and the investigators of the district attorney’s office. We appreciate their diligent and tireless efforts on behalf of the community of Tulare and its hospital. CFHA remains in steadfast support of the Tulare County District Attorney’s prosecution of Benzeevi, Greene and Germany and look forward to an increase in aid from the State Attorney General’s office in the near future,” the statement continues.
Attorneys for the trio allege that Ward followed the shifting political tides and began investigating HCCA to ensure his re-election.
“Pressure began to mount on District Attorney Ward to investigate Dr. Benzeevi and HCCA following a disputed recall election. Dr. Parmod Kumar was recalled and replaced by Senovia Gutierrez—an anti-HCCA candidate—in a July 11, 2017, recall election,” the filing reads.
A new chapter of drama surrounding the hospital and its board started in July 2017, after Gutierrez’ election. Although her election was certified on July 20, 2017, and she was sworn in by Judge Walter Gorelick on July 25, she wasn’t “recognized” and seated on the board until September 2017 – after multiple legal challenges.
Attorneys for the trio claim that a July 25, 2017 letter from the Tulare County Registrar of Voters had not arrived in time for a declaration of Gutierrez’ election to be “properly placed” on the meeting agenda for the next day.
An agenda item for the July 26 meeting stated that “As a result of the recent special election on July 11, 2017, Senovia Gutierrez will replace Dr. Parmod Kumar as a Board member,” but Linda Wilbourn, the district board’s chair at the time, told the public that there was “a question” as to whether that was the proper placement and wording.
“Because this was a special recall election, not a regular election, there is a question as to whether we have to certify this as a regular board agenda item — where it is on your agenda today is #2, as a chair announcement, it’s not in the body of the agenda,” Wilbourn said at the time.
In addition, board members Kevin Northcraft and Mike Jamaica were absent, preventing a quorum of the board – ultimately making the July 26 meeting a spirited gathering rather than a board meeting.
Attorneys for the Tulare Local Healthcare District have alleged in a separate case that Greene organized the impasse by placing Gutierrez’ recognition under “Chair Announcements” on the board’s agenda.
The impasse led to criticism from Citizens for Hospital Accountability and from the Voice’s late editor Joseph Oldenbourg, who jumped into the fray with a column entitled “Where’s Wardo,” taking Ward to task for a perceived lack of action regarding HCCA’s management of the hospital.
Criticism from the Voice, including Oldenbourg’s “Where’s Wardo” column and Catherine Doe’s “Political Fix” column likely led to Ward’s 2018 quip in which he told the Tulare Local Healthcare District board to not “believe anything you read in the Valley Voice.”
Ward would later face an election challenge from Matt Darby, a former Tulare County prosecutor.
Darby attacked Ward on the perceived lack of action against HCCA and others, stating that he would “bring back integrity to the office of Tulare County District Attorney.”
Ward’s office conflicted on multiple levels, attorneys claim
The attorneys claim that these circumstances, and two public presentations Ward gave to update the public on aspects of his office’s investigation – one to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors in March of 2018 and another to the Tulare Local Healthcare District board in April of 2018 – have led to a clear conflict of interest.
They cite the case Schumb v. Superior Court, in which a similar situation arose: the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office charged Christopher Schumb as a co-conspirator in a quid pro quo scheme. Schumb was a friend of the Santa Clara District Attorney and the district attorney’s chief assistant.
“In Schumb, the mere possibility that the District Attorney would overzealously prosecute a defendant was disqualifying—in the instant case, that possibility became a reality,” the attorneys write. “Indeed, the relationship between District Attorney Ward and Dr. Benzeevi became a public issue during District Attorney Ward’s reelection campaign. After months of public pressure, District Attorney Ward pivoted, and his office followed suit.”
“District Attorney Ward’s past relationship with Dr. Brenzeevi creates a conflict so severe the Defendants cannot receive fair treatment in these proceedings,” the attorneys write. “District Attorney Ward’s office faces incentives to aggressively prosecute the Defendants in order to distance District Attorney Ward from Dr. Benzeevi. That alone is disqualifying under the case law, even if the District Attorney has not actually acted improperly.”
Next filing and hearing dates
During the Tuesday hearing, both sides agreed to the following filing schedule:
- the district attorney’s office would respond by January 9,
- attorneys for the three HCCA leaders would respond to those filings by January 18,
- any responses to those filings would be due by January 25
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for February 1 at 8:30am, in a courtroom to be determined at the Tulare County Superior Court.
Attorneys for Benzeevi, Greene and Germany did not respond to requests for comment by publication time. If comments are received, this article will be updated.