EDITOR’S NOTE: The Coast News will continue to report on this developing story.
OCEANSIDE — Just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, a Tri-City Healthcare District candidate’s alleged election meddling and past legal entanglements with the hospital have raised questions about a potential conflict of interest and his motivations for seeking a seat on the board.
The Coast News has reviewed court documents that shed light on the origins of Oceanside resident Jim Burlew’s employment as Tri-City Medical Center’s facilities director in 2013 and his subsequent firing from the hospital, revealing claims of his lack of professional qualifications and alleged criminal conduct in the days shortly after his removal.
“They were trying to bully me and bleed me dry, and it didn’t work,” Burlew, a District 1 candidate, told The Coast News. “[Tri-City] started the lawsuits and they ended up settling and paying me because their claims were found to be false.”
A spokesperson at Tri-City declined to comment about Burlew’s employment history due to privacy rights.
According to Tri-City’s legal filings, Burlew was hired in 2013 as Tri-City’s director of facilities, despite a lack of basic job proficiency or previous management experience in a hospital facilities department.
Approximately one year later, Burlew was fired in 2014 for violating the hospital’s nepotism and conflict of interest policies after hiring several of his relatives to work under his supervision and lying about it.
After hiring his wife’s niece and nephew, Burlew maintained that he did not know he was related to them.
Previously, Burlew had been placed on administrative leave for falsifying employee time cards and “mistreatment of employees,” court documents state.
Patient data breach
Shortly after his dismissal at Tri-City, Burlew came to retrieve his personal belongings on Aug. 8, 2014, from his office at the facilities department, but left the hospital with a stack of emergency department transfer logs containing the personal information of 35,000 patients, according to court documents.
The logs had been temporarily stored on the lower shelf of a cart Burlew used to transport personal items to his car, but the files did not belong to him. When a staff member accompanying Burlew during one of his trips asked him about the folders, Burlew reportedly told him, “[Tri-City] would really be after me if I took those books.”
Burlew allegedly kept the logs in his home for several days and shared them with Luis Montulli, a former member of Tri-City’s Governance Committee, who was later fired for his role in the patient data breach.
Burlew denied taking the files, claiming he discovered the documents in his truck after arriving home.
“The records that mysteriously showed up in my truck were from the emergency department,” Burlew said. “They don’t belong in the facilities department. I’ve never seen them. Somebody tried to stick them in my truck.”
Burlew denied sharing the documents with anyone and said he kept them in a safe before returning the records to the California Department of Public Health shortly thereafter.
But Burlew’s refusal to immediately return the emergency logs to Tri-City violated his confidentiality agreement with the hospital, according to court documents.
Tri-City filed a complaint against Burlew on Oct. 7, 2014, in Vista Superior Court, alleging negligence, breach of contract, receiving stolen property, misappropriation of trade secrets and conversion. Burlew filed a counter-complaint against the hospital for wrongful termination, which ultimately resulted in a settlement agreement.
For Burlew, none of his past legal wranglings with the hospital constitutes a conflict of interest related to his candidacy for the board.
“No, there is no conflict of interest at all because none of that’s actually true,” Burlew said. “I’ve moved on, past that whole thing. You don’t dwell on things like that.”
Going on the offensive
Burlew established a website (tricity2020.com) for his latest campaign, which includes his policy recommendations for hospital board candidates and a laundry list of allegations against Tri-City.
For example, Burlew’s website claims the public “needs to find out where the $85 million HUD loan money went since leadership has never explained where it went.”
Aaron Byzak, Tri-City’s chief external affairs officer, explained the $85.8 million HUD refinancing loan was discussed publicly on dozens of occasions and was eventually approved during a 2017 public board meeting.
The HUD loan money is reported annually in financial statement reports, which are public records available for review, provided by public accounting firm Moss Adams. Publicly available documents also include the settlement statement which describes exactly where the loan proceeds were distributed, Byzak said.
“The (HUD mortgage insurance loan) program is a refinancing program under which Tri-City refinanced its shorter-term, higher-interest debt (along with debt requiring cash restricted collateral) to longer-term, fixed-rate debt, which released the cash collateral requirement and improved operating liquidity,” Byzak said.
Burlew also claims the public “needs to hire a forensic accountant to explain why there appears to be more than $4.5 million in cash and cash equivalents missing from the general fund.”
However, Burlew incorrectly juxtaposes two different financial reports — a 2019 Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) financial report for the hospital itself and a consolidated audit for the entire Tri-City Healthcare District and its properties.
The Coast News reviewed the correct financial documents and found the Healthcare District’s cash and cash equivalents ($40,281,780) and short-term investments ($5,414,483) — which are combined under state reporting guidelines — added up to a total of $45,696,263 — an exact match.
Rocky Chavez, current Tri-City Healthcare District board member and Oceanside mayoral candidate, believes Burlew’s allegations are likely steeped in his personal experiences with the hospital.
In 2018, Burlew, then running as a union-backed Democrat, lost his bid for the District 2 board seat to Chavez. This year, Burlew was endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party.
“It’s very upsetting when he attacks the hospital, for people like me to hear what he’s saying because he’s just wrong,” Chavez said. “Burlew has an objective to get on the board and hopefully he’ll have [votes] to fire people who fired him. That’s no reason to get on the board.”
In recent years, Burlew has gone into business with former Tri-City CEO Larry Anderson and Charles Perez, founder of Medical Acquisition Company (MAC), establishing Healthcare Compliance 365.
In 2013, Anderson was fired from Tri-City due to alleged conflicts of interest with Perez that resulted in a lawsuit settlement, but with a recent appeal, the case is still ongoing.
The Coast News reported in 2015 that Anderson advocated for a lease agreement between Tri-City and MAC — an agreement that would have secured Anderson’s employment for eight more years.
During negotiations of the agreement, Anderson allegedly misled the Tri-City board about MAC’s experience, while at the same time accepting a number of gifts from Perez.
More recently, Burlew’s opponents have accused him of sending campaign emails posing as other candidates.
One email sent in September claiming to be from District 1 candidate Colleen O’Harra, an attorney and four-year board member of the Tri-City Hospital Foundation, attacked District 1 candidate and former Tri-City nurse Adela Sanchez with false claims.
The email included O’Harra’s home address, which she said she never puts on her campaign emails, adding that Burlew’s emails typically include his business address.
“I thought, well, this is interesting, because that’s the way Burlew always ends his emails,” O’Harra said.
Though Sanchez says she won’t speculate about who sent the emails, O’Harra believes Burlew sent them. Burlew said he hasn’t seen the emails.
“That’s not the way I run a campaign,” O’Harra said.
Another phony email sent in October claimed that O’Harra supported District 7 candidate Allen Manzano over his opponent, Dr. Nina Chaya, which O’Harra said is false. The mailing address included in this email matched Burlew’s business address.
Additionally, several elements in the suspicious emails also match language found on Burlew’s campaign website, including the phrase, “This candidate is flawed for the following reasons.”
O’Harra speculated that Burlew is sending fake emails to split the votes between targeted Democratic candidates, favoring both him for the District 1 seat and his ally, Deborah Vietor, for District 7.
O’Harra has reported the fake emails to the County Registrar and the FPPC but has not yet received a response.
“This is all just a distraction from the important issues, the real issues, that are affecting Tri-City Healthcare in the district,” Chaya said at a Sept. 30 Chamber of Commerce forum. “It’s really a shame when people try to rely on impugning others to win instead of their own qualifications.”