Jeff Parish councilman gets clearance to vote on hospital leases

Management, job as physician not connected, Ethics Board says

Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears Jr. got state ethics clearance Friday to vote on leasing the parish’s West Jefferson and East Jefferson medical centers even though his wife is a physician at one of them.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics adopted an advisory opinion in response to a question from Spears about the propriety of his participating and voting on the lease deal.

“The lease doesn’t have anything to do with her job as a physician,” said Suzanne Mooney, an attorney with the ethics agency.

The opinion letter said the lease contracts will not include any discussions that would directly involve individual physicians’ salaries.

However, Mooney said Spears would be prohibited by ethics laws from participating directly if issues come up regarding the employment, salary and benefits of his wife, Dr. Rachel Spears.

“It does not appear that you or your wife has any greater economic interest in the potential lease of the hospitals than does any other physician employed by Jefferson Parish Hospital system,” the opinion stated.

The board approved the advisory opinion without discussion.

The Louisiana Legislature had previously amended state nepotism laws to let Spears’ wife work at West Jefferson, one of two parish-owned hospitals.

The Ethics Board opposed the change, which allowed public hospitals in Jefferson to hire clinical professionals whose immediate family members sit on hospital governing boards or parish councils.

The hiring would be allowed even if other qualified applicants were available.

The boards overseeing East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center were expected to recommend one of three companies to take over the public hospitals this week but deadlocked after a daylong, closed-door session on Tuesday.

Sources familiar with the discussions said the West Jefferson board unanimously favored Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, a New Orleans nonprofit that runs Children’s Hospital, Touro Infirmary and the LSU hospital in New Orleans, while most of the East Jefferson board members voted for HCA, a Nashville for-profit company that runs Tulane Medical Center.

Ochsner Health System, the third option, did not receive the support of any of the board members.

The Parish Council had been scheduled to vote on the boards’ recommendation on Wednesday but delayed that decision because the boards could not agree on a single company. Council members are expected to give further guidance to those panels in the coming weeks.