Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo outlined a series of steps Friday in responding to a potentially costly legal mistake by a former lawyer for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Raimondo said she has directed senior counsel Adi Goldstein to a lead a review of all outstanding or pending state litigation with a value of more than $100,000. Among other measures, the governor announced a new annual requirement for state lawyers to prove they are in good standing with the Rhode Island Supreme Court and Bar Association. The state will also conduct spot audits of employees required to hold licenses or certifications for their state jobs.
These changes come after former HHS lawyer Gregory Hazian, who was dropped from a state Supreme Court list of lawyers in January, was blamed by state officials for missing a deadline in an appeal of a case involving Medicaid rates paid by the state to nursing homes. That could expose the state to millions of dollars in retroactive payments.
The problem involving the nursing home legal case unleashed a torrent of criticism this week from rivals seeking to challenge Raimondo in this year's election for governor.
"Clearly. this has been a very frustrating week," Raimondo said during a Statehouse news conference, flanked by state Administration Director Michael DBiase. "There are a lot of Rhode Islanders who are disappointed and frustrated and angry with the mistakes that have been made. I count myself as one of them. Most state employees work incredibly hard and do a good job, and it's unacceptable and demoralizing when we see any instances of incompetence or malfeasance."
Raimondo called the issues with Hazian "inexecusable" and she noted how she's asked Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to probe how Hazian was representing the state after falling off the Supreme Court's list of lawyers. But outdated state personnel practices that place more emphasis on employee longevity than employee performance are also part of the problem, she said.
"That’s a culture that’s existed for decades," Raimondo said. "We’re not going to fix it overnight. We’ve taken many steps to improve it. And I’ll be announcing additional steps because clearly there’s a whole lot more work to do."
The governor acknowledged shortcomings in the state's case-management system for tracking high-profile litigation. She also said she inherited the state personnel practices she described as "archiac" and said she's been attempting to modernize them.
"Since I've been governor, this has been a priority of mine," Raimondo said. "My whole team knows it. We want to work hard for the people of Rhode Island, we want to reward performance, and we will not tolerate under-performance."
Raimondo pointed to how her first budget in 2015 included an effort to include fewer classified positions in state government, and how the General Assembly did not support that. Last year, she said, the state implemented its first-ever performance review system. Raimondo said she last year signed the first contract in state history that includes merit pay, and performance reviews for all state employees.
State Republican Chairman Brandon Bell responded with this comment: “Governor, you’re a Rhodes Scholar. You know these changes in personnel policies would not have prevented the Hazian fiasco."
Bell called on Raimondo to fire HHS Secretary Eric Beane, and he said the governor, a prodigious fundraiser, should raise her focus on governing the state.
State officials say Hazian, who quit his job as a lawyer this week with EOHHS, kept to himself and his supervisor how Rhode Island faced a May 23 deadline for filing an appeal in a case involving Medicaid rates to nursing homes. The state is now making a delinquent appeal -- and Raimondo said ongoing talks are aimed at a potential compromise with the nursing homes.
Raimondo and DiBiase told reporters they are unaware of any political interference being exerted on Hazian's behalf to keep him in state employment prior to this week.
This report has been updated.