Whole Family Health’s hunt for CEO stalls

What was to have been another leap forward in the high-growth trajectory of Whole Family Health Center – the hiring of both a new CEO and a new CFO – will be a smaller step for the moment after West Virginia State Police told Vero Beach 32963 last week that the man selected to be CEO, Brian Crist, remains the subject of a multi-month investigation.

The hiring of Crist, which had been announced to staff and board members and was slated to become effective July 30, was subsequently placed “on hold,” according to Whole Family Health’s board chairman, Stephan Trooboff.

Capt. Reginald Patterson told Vero Beach 32963 that as the result of its investigation, apparently triggered by the Board of Directors of the rural West Virginia healthcare system he led, a search warrant had been served in March on Crist’s home and office. Patterson declined to provide any details of what they were looking for, but said the investigation was continuing and “a press release will follow at the appropriate time.”

Patterson pointed out that one week after the search was carried out, Crist resigned as CEO of Lincoln Primary Care Center, also known as Southern West Virginia Health System, which has 15 locations and 16,000 patients.

Attempts to contact Crist directly were unsuccessful. Asked to convey a request for an interview to Crist, Trooboff said Crist would not speak to the press.

Whole Family Health Center has a staff of 50 serving more than 4,000 patients from offices in Vero and Fort Pierce. It evolved from the Fort Pierce HIV/AIDS clinic founded in 1995 by Dr. Gerald Pierone. Whole Family Health now offers free or low-cost adult and pediatric primary care, mental health services and HIV/Aids treatment and other services.

Crist, his wife Stephany and two teenage sons were planning to relocate to Vero Beach this month.  Crist’s name came to Whole Family Health’s attention through a search firm, UHC Solutions, retained after the clinic’s former CEO, Lydia Sciarrino, left in December to lead a clinic in Philadelphia.

Trooboff said the recruitment firm had known Crist for 15 years and was “flabbergasted” to hear the candidate they recommended to Vero was under West Virginia State Police investigation.

According to Trooboff, who said Crist had spoken “candidly” to several Vero interviewers about the investigation and his resignation, Crist maintains the allegations made by his former company’s board involve credit card purchases they say he made for himself but charged to the company.

Trooboff characterized the purchase amounts Crist named as “so trivial as to be ridiculous – $27, $56, nothing amounts.” The dispute goes back for “three or four years,” Trooboff said.

While Crist informed several Whole Family Health officials of the investigation, he did not say it remained open, a pivotal distinction for Trooboff. “I don’t really think he thought it was an on-going investigation,” Trooboff said. “He thought the whole issue with the state police was totally over, and that when he got to Florida, it was behind him.”

Trooboff said Whole Family Heath’s attorney will press Crist’s attorney as well as West Virginia State Police to find out if the questionable charges are as small as Crist maintains. Whole Family had already called state police, but “they wouldn’t tell us anything,” Trooboff said.

“If we can’t verify that and it turns out to be considerable amounts, we would probably press ahead (with the CEO search), and if it’s not, we won’t,” he said, adding, “His explanation is very believable.”

News of the investigation first broke in the Lincoln Journal, a tiny weekly newspaper in West Virginia. It recounted in exacting detail the comings and goings of Lincoln Primary Care Center board members over the course of several days of meetings in Hamlin, a town of just over 1,100 residents where Crist and his family live and where Lincoln Primary Care Center is based.

Neither the Lincoln Journal nor other media reporting on Crist’s departure said what prompted his resignation. Lincoln Primary Care Center is a major employer in southern West Virginia.

Authorities there would not specify the allegations against Crist, though the Lincoln Journal reported state police had used the phrase “possibility of embezzlement” and according to the weekly, had also said “it is possible the case could proceed to the federal level.” A State Police spokesperson on Monday confirmed those quotes.

The West Virginia healthcare system’s risk manager, Ron Hatfield, also resigned at the same time as Crist, according to the Lincoln Journal. To date, there has been no explanation for Hatfield’s resignation.

Hatfield and Crist are members of a popular Southern rock band in West Virginia. The Lincoln Journal recounted at length the band’s recent schedule, which included a gig at the exclusive Greenbrier Resort and an upcoming performance at a festival in Charleston, W. Va., in August. It also quoted from another news outlet that Hatfield had his law license suspended for three years in 2015. Hatfield’s LinkedIn profile shows he joined Lincoln Primary Care in December 2015. He and Crist are graduates of West Virginia University.

Trooboff said he believed Crist’s characterization of the investigation as small-town jealousy of Crist’s success. He said he had found Crist to be “about as good a guy as you could possibly find.

“What he’s told us is the person who made this claim made a legal whistleblower claim. The way I understand it is the state police had to be involved,” said Trooboff.

“The board chair [at Lincoln Primary Health Center] is a prosecuting attorney in another county. There’s a lot of information about the dynamics of this place that gives you real pause whether there’s any substance here at all,” said Trooboff.

On a recent visit to Vero Beach, Crist met in person with Trooboff and other board members. “Feedback was uniformly positive about his joining Whole Family Health Center,” Trooboff wrote to staff and board members in a note last week. That was before learning of the on-going investigation.

Whole Family Health Center appears poised for expansion due to a shortage of low-cost primary care providers in Vero. Though a CEO decision may be on hold, its leaders are moving forward with the hiring of Jose Zirena as Chief Financial Officer. Zirena, a native of Peru, has been CFO of Community Health Service of Lamoille Valley, a group of medical, behavioral health and dental practices in Stowe, Vt.

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