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Tri-City candidate’s business interests, shadowy campaign tactics raise concerns

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated from a previous version to include written statements from Tri-City candidate Deborah Vietor. Vietor’s response was submitted to The Coast News following the original Oct. 29 publication of this article. 

OCEANSIDE — Several dark horse Tri-City Healthcare District candidates jockeying for a handful of down-ballot seats have allied themselves with a former healthcare employee in what appears to be an attempted group takeover of the hospital’s board. 

In addition to running for the board’s District 1 seat, Jim Burlew, who was fired as Tri-City’s facilities director in 2014 for violating the hospital’s nepotism policies, has orchestrated campaigns for board candidates Savannah Strunk, Robert Motsinger and Deborah Sheri Vietor, each of which mirror Burlew’s policy proposals and allegations against the hospital. 

All of the candidates list Burlew’s website (tricity2020.com) and feature the same laundry list of perceived grievances, including the closure of the hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit under “false pretenses” and missing money from the hospital’s General Fund.

Several of Burlew’s claims, as illustrated in a campaign video that Burlew posted four times — one for each candidate — have since been debunked by The Coast News. 

“In my political career, I have not seen anything that flagrant,” said Laura Fink, a San Diego-based political analyst and CEO of Rebelle Communications. “It’s machine politics to an extreme degree, and it’s reliant on people not finding out about it.” 

Fink acknowledged Burlew’s strategy is highly unusual but likely to succeed in the low-information race, where voters are “less likely to pay attention.”

ABOVE: A campaign video Burlew created for three other Tri-City board candidates.

Motsinger, a certified special project inspector, told The Coast News that Burlew approached him about running for the District 3 seat on Tri-City’s board. 

“I never thought about the problems until he pointed them out to me,” Motsinger said. “He said, ‘I’ll take care 90% of (the campaign).’ I talk to him every other day and he tells me what’s going on. For example, the signage, little signs with wires they put in people’s yards. He said, ‘Bob, it’s time to do signs.’”

During his interview, Motsinger, a certified special project inspector, said he couldn’t recall the district he was seeking to represent. He also acknowledged he doesn’t know much about his challenger, including her name (Gigi Gleason).

“The young lady I’m running against is a lifetime volunteer, nice lady, but she’s got zilcho,” Motsinger said. “It’s probably better I don’t know her name. I think somebody told me once. I’m not trying to run against her, I’m just trying to run for the office. She’s probably a really nice person. I think just maybe I might be a bit better.”

However, when residents asked Motsinger about his stance on certain issues on his Facebook page, Burlew, not Motsinger, frequently provided a response, prompting a resident to ask, “Can Robert (Motsinger) not speak for himself?” 

“Jim Burlew is the leader of the group,” said Colleen O’Harra, a District 1 candidate running against Burlew. “They don’t speak for themselves.” 

Screenshots of comments on Robert Motsinger’s Facebook page.

Motsinger has also proposed for Tri-City to enter into a public-private partnership with Scripps Health to bring “more services, better healthcare to North County,” a suggestion redoubled by Burlew, Strunk and Vietor.

“There is no such partnership or negotiation underway with Scripps Health,” a Scripps Health spokesperson said. “Scripps requested that the campaigns/candidates refrain from making these statements and remove all references to Scripps in campaign materials.”

The candidates have since removed the healthcare provider from their campaign statements, according to Scripps Health. 

Following the publication of this article, Vietor submitted a written statement to The Coast News. While she acknowledged Burlew asked her to run for office, Vietor said many Carlsbad residents have also encouraged her to run for a seat on the board. Ultimately, Vietor said she wants to improve the hospital and better serve the community.

“I am greatly concerned regarding the number of people who are terrified of being admitted to Tri-City, yet have no choice as there are many frightening stories of patients going elsewhere with no treatment or sub-par treatment,” Vietor wrote.

“I am running for the board in order to assist in building better programs, improving the quality of medical care at the hospital, increasing the morale of employees and focusing on serving the community’s health needs. I seek to elevate, cultivate positive participation, grow, learn and provide enlightenment to others so that we may increase the value of Tri-City.”

During the course of its investigation, The Coast News could not find any contact information for Vietor. Most of her candidate information is located on Burlew’s website, www.tricity2020.com.

History of mismanagement

In 2014, during Burlew’s tenure at the hospital, the Office of Statewide Health and Planning Development (OSHPD) received an anonymous tip advising that Burlew had replaced ceilings throughout the hospital without the state agency’s knowledge, review  or approval, a violation of state law

Shortly after Burlew’s firing, the facilities department submitted a new renovation plan to OSHPD, costing the hospital an additional $41,337 to bring the ceilings up to code, according to internal Tri-City documents obtained by The Coast News.  

Jessica Godfrey, a former staff accountant at Tri-City, recalled frequent problems under Burlew’s direction of the facilities department.

“It never failed that it seemed like there was a problem with every project under the direction of Jim Burlew,” Godfrey told The Coast News. “I remember things weren’t inspected correctly and we had to go back and do it over again.”

Jim Dagostino, a physical therapist and former Tri-City board chair, also recalled Burlew’s reputation for mismanagement at the hospital preceded him. 

“(Myself) and many board members heard much about Mr. Burlew, as many of his projects were fraught with complications,” Dagostino said in a written statement. “Many of his projects had problems with appropriate regulatory approval.”

An internal Tri-City Medical Center document requesting funds to repair work performed by Burlew.

In June 2014, the City of Oceanside slapped Tri-City with an administrative citation, issuing a stop-work order and temporarily suspending the hospital’s building permit at 4120 Waring Road after Burlew failed to obtain the proper clearance from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District regarding asbestos removal and without approved stormwater erosion or construction waste recycling plans.

As a staff accountant, Godfrey was also responsible for the analysis of accounts and purchases, including financial transactions for the hospital’s construction projects, which required frequent interactions with Burlew. According to Godfrey, several employees working under Burlew told her that he was “belligerent” and “a bully.”

Godfrey recalled a specific incident after Burlew came to the accounting office demanding immediate payment of invoices to his company, J.B. Consulting & Associates.

“(Burlew) was kind of bullying her into getting these payments,” Godfrey said.  “Burlew said, ‘I want these paid. I think it’s important we get these paid. It’s in the best interest of the hospital.’”

Godfrey later reported the incident to the hospital’s anonymous values line.

“I thought it went against general practices and values of the hospital,” Godfrey said. “We need people working to make the hospital better and not out for their own agenda.”

More conflicts of interest

According to Burlew’s former hospital coworkers, Tri-City paid Burlew’s inspection company, JB Consulting & Associates, for inspection services of his own work on several projects, a practice condemned by some hospital inspectors as an inherent conflict of interest.

Dagostino said many of the projects under Burlew had “cost overruns” and “problems with finishing on time.” 

“To me and some of my Board Colleagues it became clear that this job was over Mr. Burlew’s head,” Dagostino said in a written statement to The Coast News. “It is unclear why he was hired by (former CEO Larry) Anderson.” 

In 2013, Anderson was fired from Tri-City due to alleged unlawful conflicts of interest with Charles Perez, founder of Medical Acquisitions Company, Inc (MAC) regarding the hospital’s medical office building, which resulted in a lawsuit. 

A Tri-City spokesperson confirmed the hospital’s litigation with Perez and MAC remains unsettled — a potential conflict of interest for Burlew, who has pledged to “stop the ongoing lawsuit that the hospital initiated in an attempt to steal the medical office building from the developer.”

Burlew also faced legal trouble with Tri-City shortly after his firing due to his alleged removal of files containing private information of 35,000 patients. Tri-City “incurred thousands of dollars” in damages as a result, according to court documents.

Burlew and Anderson have since gone into business together, establishing Nevada-based Healthcare Compliance 365, which may position Burlew and his business interests on both sides of the negotiating table for future hospital contracts. 

Rocky Chávez, a Tri-City board member and Oceanside mayoral candidate, said a lot of changes could happen if Burlew and his slate of candidates are elected to the board. 

“The man should not be allowed to be on the board,” Chavez said. “I hope voters see that.” 

Burlew did not respond to requests for comment.