November 1, 2014

Health Services

Quiet Influence

When the state leveled an ethics charge, Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen showed just how influential he is.

Bob Snell | 9/1/2005
Despite spending 12 years building the second-largest public health department in Florida, Duval County Health Department Director Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen was little-known outside local civic circles. But when a recent conflict-of-interest charge threatened his job, the public got a glimpse of the quiet influence the unassuming pediatrician wields in Duval County -- and Tallahassee.

In 2000, University of North Florida officials asked the county Health Department to find a part-time adjunct professor for its public health program. Goldhagen took the job -- he is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida -- and was paid $25,000.

As part of a larger report in June, the state Department of Health's inspector general found that Goldhagen had violated ethics laws by accepting outside income while serving as health director. In taking the part-time job, the report said, Goldhagen had effectively negotiated a "purchase order contract" for himself. Goldhagen denied any wrongdoing.

After the inspector general's report, state Health Secretary John Agwunobi fired Goldhagen in June. But Agwunobi immediately began backpedaling. Agwunobi first had to apologize to Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, who was miffed at not being consulted about Goldhagen's release. Though Goldhagen was technically an employee of UF, which had a contract to operate Duval County's public health service, Peyton and an assistant state health secretary appointed the county health director jointly.

Then came calls from former mayors, state legislators and local public health advocates. They pointed out that under Goldhagen the county Health Department had grown from 300 employees and a $13-million budget to 800 employees and a $45-million budget.

Following weeks of heavy lobbying, Agwunobi reversed his decision to fire Goldhagen and agreed to rehire him at a salary that makes him the state's highest paid public health director -- under one condition. Goldhagen had to repay the $25,000 he had accepted from UNF about three years ago. Goldhagen refused, saying the state's proposal was a de facto admission of guilt. Once again the health secretary retreated, erasing any reference to the ethics complaint and stipulating that repayment of the $25,000 was subject to "future negotiations."

As of early August, Goldhagen and lawyers from the state Department of Health were still negotiating details of his new contract. Outstanding issues included Goldhagen's desire to continue teaching at UF, which state officials want to review "at a later date," and Goldhagen's insistence that the document exonerate him of all conflict-of-interest charges.

"Dr. Goldhagen denies all allegations in the inspector general's report, which drew a number of erroneous conclusions," says Goldhagen's attorney, Howard McGillin. "He has established a strong track record in the development of academic/public partnerships that he intends to pursue in the future."

Tags: Politics & Law, Northeast, Government/Politics & Law

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