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State transparency laws at center of lawsuit between MetroHealth, fired CEO

MetroHealth System
The MetroHealth board and the system's former CEO have been embroiled in a scandal that has resulted in two lawsuits since November, when the board voted to fire Dr. Akram Boutros over bonus payments they say were unauthorized. Boutros disputes that characterization.

MetroHealth responded in court Monday to accusations by the hospital system’s former CEO Dr. Akram Boutros that it violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act when it fired him and that it retaliated against him after he challenged the board for what he says were other transparency law violations.

MetroHealth, which is a public hospital and subject to transparency rules, said in its filing that it followed the law during the search for a new CEO and when, on Nov. 21, it voted to fire Boutros. The hospital board said it began scrutinizing bonuses after it reviewed payroll data.

It’s the latest development in the MetroHealth CEO bonus scandal that rocked Cuyahoga County’s safety net hospital in November, after the board fired Boutros. The board alleged he gave himself $1.9 million dollars in bonuses that were not authorized by the board.

Boutros has denied any wrongdoing.

Boutros's lawsuit claims that he was "protecting the Board from its own incompetence while vindicating the public interest," when he notified the board that he believed it had violated the Open Meetings Act during its search for a CEO to replace him.

Boutros said the board began investigating his bonuses as a result.

The hospital board, like other public entities, is subject to state transparency laws, including the Open Meetings Act, which requires public officials to discuss and take official action in meetings open to the public.

The law includes exceptions that allow the board to meet behind closed doors, including an exemption for personnel matters, which allows boards to discuss those matters in private.

In its response, the hospital said Boutros never challenged the board on Open Meetings violations during that process and participated in the search for a replacement. It denied it violated the Open Meetings Act and said that Boutros raised transparency concerns only after he learned the board was looking into the bonuses.

"Dr. Boutros created and proposed the agendas for all Board meetings and served as the executive lead for all Board meetings, including identifying materials and information that he believed should be discussed in executive session," the response reads.

Read MetroHealth's response here

In his complaint, Boutros said the hospital board also violated the law in November when it went into a private session to discuss his employment and voted to fire him behind closed doors.

Read the amended complaint:

Ohio law allows some deliberation away from the public, but requires votes to be made in open session.

In court documents, Boutros points to a text message from board Chair Vanessa Whiting to board member Terry Monnolly, who was absent from the executive session, that reads, “Terry the board voted to terminate Akram immediately.”

An image provided in an amended complaint shows the message was time-stamped at 5:46 p.m. when it was received, after the executive session but before the open session, indicating the board voted behind closed doors, the complaint asserts.

In the response filed Monday, the hospital board says it voted to fire Boutros after it had returned to open session.

The hospital response also includes an image of the same text message from Whiting's phone, time-stamped 7:46 p.m. — after the open session.

Boutros is asking the court to nullify his firing and the findings of an investigation. He has also filed a second lawsuit against the hospital board alleging breach of contract.

Dr. Akram Boutros, the fired CEO of the MetroHealth System, has filed a second lawsuit against the hospital's board of trustees, claiming breach of contract, retaliation and intimidation.

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.