Catoosa County Commission requests criminal probe into Hutcheson

Catoosa County Commission requests criminal probe into Hutcheson

September 7th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Hutcheson Medical Center is seen in this photo taken on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — Former Hutcheson Medical Center administrators could soon be under criminal investigation.

The Catoosa County Commission voted 4-0 Tuesday night to ask Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin to look into whether any crimes occurred inside the hospital's walls before it temporarily shut down last year.

The request is not specific. The commissioners did not hint at any particular crimes. They merely voted to formally tell Franklin they wanted him to empanel a grand jury to examine the inner workings of Hutcheson. They also asked Franklin to consider bringing in agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The GBI cannot look into potential crimes without a request from another government official. And, in fact, the county commission can't even make that request. But Franklin can.

It's unclear what Franklin will do in response to the commission's request. He did not return an email seeking comment Tuesday.

The commissioners weren't sure what — if any — criminal activity is out there, waiting to be uncovered. But some said the whole situation didn't add up: Erlanger Health System loaned Hutcheson $20 million in 2011. Catoosa and Walker counties' elected leaders promised to pay off that loan, if necessary.

"As a commissioner and a taxpayer, I'd like to know where the money went," said Keith Greene, the county commission chairman.

Despite the loan five years ago, Hutcheson continued to struggle, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2014, closing for two weeks last December and then getting bought out by ApolloMD, a physican's group from Atlanta. The hospital — now private — has been rebranded Cornerstone Medical Center.

Former Hutcheson employees have painted a picture of mismanagement at the hospital. Some said CEO Farrell Hayes (who did not return a call seeking comment for this story) pressured the emergency room staff into admitting more patients into the hospital, a ploy that could have yielded more revenue.

Others said they practiced without enough supplies. Still others were upset because the administrators didn't pay vendors for their supplies. Some employees weren't covered for health insurance, even though money was taken out of their paychecks for that very reason.

Erlanger attorney Jeff Woodard, who attended Tuesday's meeting with Chief Administrative Officer Gregg Gentry, declined to comment after Catoosa County's vote. So did a contigency of Walker County representatives: attorney Don Oliver and Hutcheson board members Bill Cooke and John Culpepper.

"Let the chips fall where they may," Culpepper said as he, Cooke and Oliver left the meeting.

Before Tuesday's meeting, Catoosa County Attorney Chad Young said he didn't know if anything that happened at the hospital equated to a crime. But after paying $6.2 million to Erlanger and about $3.5 million to Regions Bank as part of its investment into Hutcheson's well-being, some of the county's elected officials wanted to explore the potential for a prosecution.

"If [an investigator] finds anything he thinks warrants looking into, fine." Young wrote in an email. "If not, fine. Just feel as though we owe it to the taxpayers & ex employees to at least request that someone look into it."

Added Commissioner Bobby Winters: "I'm sure there's some wrongdoing somewhere. You can't let a business go down like that. Something ain't right."

Commissioner Ray Johnson said he wanted to hear from Young and fellow County Attorney Clifton "Skip" Patty to understand his options.

"But the way [other commissioners are] talking about it, we just want to make sure everything is above board," Johnson said. "There was a lot of money. And it went south pretty quick."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.