Graham leaves Coulee hospital

Embattled CEO plans to sue medical center while still only a candidate for Three Rivers job

— The top candidate for the Three Rivers Hospital CEO position in Brewster plans to sue his former employer.

In a letter dated April 10, embattled Coulee Medical Center CEO J. Scott Graham resigned his job in Grand Coulee.

The resignation came after the hospital’s governing board previously hired an attorney to see if it had grounds to fire him for cause. And it came after he was named the top candidate to be the next CEO at Three Rivers, but before that hospital’s board has offered him a contract.

“To be clear, my separation from the hospital is effectively a constructive discharge, and not a voluntary resignation,” Graham wrote in his Coulee Medical Center resignation. “The board of directors, in concert with the hospital physicians, have engaged in a pattern of retaliatory conduct toward me that has left me no alternative but to pursue other employment opportunities.

“The board’s ongoing retaliation and refusal to act in good faith toward me in my position as hospital CEO have effectively resulted in the termination of my employment. Under these circumstances, my only reasonable option is to resign.”

Graham also accused physicians of “tortiously” interfering with his employment relationship.

“The board has engaged in a pattern of retaliatory conduct against me since I properly raised the important issue of physician compensation being out of compliance with federal law,” he wrote. “I do intend to pursue liability claims against the hospital district and the physicians over these issues.

“My attorney will be in contact with hospital counsel in the near future with respect to these claims.”

Graham has so far refused to return a single call to The Chronicle seeking comment on either his troubles at Coulee

Medical Center or his potential employment at Three Rivers.

Graham, Three Rivers’ top choice to replace outgoing administrator O.E. “Bud” Hufnagel, sent his resignation letter to Coulee Medical Center board Chairman Jerry Kennedy.

In accordance with his contract, Graham offered to stay on for 90 days. However, the Coulee board voted April 14 to waive the 90-day notice and end his employment immediately.

In accepting the resignation, the board said it “disputes the content of the letter of resignation.”

Kennedy could not be reached for comment and Commissioner Betty Brueske was out of town Monday.

During the same meeting, Director of Community Outreach Deborah Bigelow was named interim superintendent of Coulee Medical Center. She has previously served as the hospital’s chief financial officer.

The added responsibility comes with a monthly bump in salary of about $10,416, according to a board resolution. Bigelow is also given authorization to consult with Jon Smiley as needed, at a cost of $125 per hour over the phone or $1,000 per day for on-site consultation.

Three Rivers board Chairwoman Vicki Orford said Monday evening she planned to meet with Graham today, Wednesday.

“Yes, I did know that Grand Coulee has released Scott of his CEO position,” she said.

“As it stands right now, the board will ratify his contract at the May general meeting, which due to the (Memorial Day) holiday ... I will be asking to move the date to May 12.”

Orford said she might have more information after meeting with Graham.

The commissioners plan to discuss the proposed contract when they meet at 4 p.m. Monday in the Hillcrest administration building, 415 Hospital Way.

The board had planned to vote on a contract in a special meeting earlier in the month so Hufnagel could leave after his scheduled last day, April 30. However, Commissioner Jerry Tretwold told The Chronicle the hospital board was advised it could not consider an employment contract in a special meeting.

That advice came after previous Chronicle challenges to a flawed hiring process that violated the state Open Public Meetings Act.

Meanwhile, Hufnagel has offered to stay through May 16.

Hufnagel, who was listed as a principal with CareSync Consulting of Seattle until his status was questioned by the newspaper, notified Graham of the job opening in Brewster, along with other health care administrators around North-Central Washington.

Graham was selected from 26 applicants for the CEO spot at Three Rivers.

The board announced its decision March 25 after publicly interviewing Graham and the other finalist, Eugene Suksi of Crescent City, Calif.

The hospital board refused to release the names of any of the other applicants for the job, citing the candidates’ requests to remain anonymous.

Three Rivers has contended with its own controversies over the past year, culminating in Hufnagel’s resignation in late December.

In his resignation letter, Hufnagel said he and the board weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on how to make the hospital financially solvent, which is what he was hired to do in September 2011.


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