"We collected the document at the end of our discussion so there were no copies floating around," reads a May 26, 2010, email from Mark Bonney, head of the board of directors of Community Health Center, to executive director Mark Masselli.
Sometimes I start to question the sincerity of people to whom I pose simple questions. Take Community Health Center, the health care organization based in Middletown that is ensnared in an unwelcome federal investigation of campaign contributions and state bond funds.
Last month, I wrote about the staggering 2010 bonus that the center's board of directors gave to its leader, Mark Masselli. The report mentioned in the email was the one that recommended a raise and a staggering $220,000 bonus for Masselli, in addition to his $330,000 salary. The report was written by a consultant who shortly thereafter was hired to head the center's human resources operation.
When I asked in March what the justification for the bonus was, a spokesman for the center said it was to make up for the absence of a retirement plan for Masselli more than 20 years ago. The minutes of the meeting at which the board unanimously approved the raise and bonus make no mention of that. The minutes say "that the bonus amount corresponds to the excellent results achieved by the organization."
Federal investigators, who have compelled the center to provide a lot of information about its dealings with state officials, may be able to use their authority to see if some of those "excellent results" included the millions in state funds Masselli was able to obtain with the help of his friend former Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan, for whose scandal-plagued, unsuccessful 2010 congressional campaign Masselli served as finance chairman.
Though the center is required to disclose its top salaries in public federal documents, Masselli did not want the suspect compensation report to leak. He sent an email to Bonney on May 25, 2010, cautioning him, "I know you will remind people that this document shouldn't be misplaced or dealt with casually."
Nothing unusual here, the center spokeswoman Andrea Obston wrote in response to questions last week. "Community Health Center, like other institutions, considers all discussions about compensation to be a private matter between the board, the organization's HR department and the individual involved." But the concern for secrecy over Masselli's bonus suggests he and at least one of his allies knew they were committing an outrage that required a thick veil around it.
Bonney also informed Masselli in his email that someone may have overheard the board's discussion of the compensation report, saying he "should be aware that … Angela's driver had come to the floor as we started our discussion and, while we thought he had left the floor upon seeing that the meeting was still on, [an aide] was concerned that he showed up 'too quickly' following the conclusion of the meeting to have left the floor in the first place. I hope this does not cause an issue for you."
The Angela in the email is presumably board member Angela Anthony. The paranoia in the message is more proof that the center knew that the raise was a dodgy move in a business that holds itself out as a guardian of the poor and neglected. The board voted not to pay the bonus until later in the year "following the release of audited financial statements in August/September 2010."
A consultant's compensation report to the board outlines the tax risks that the center took to give Masselli the extraordinary bonus. After reviewing the various penalties that could be imposed by the government, it concludes, "Not a pleasant picture but unlikely to be an issue."
It may have looked that way in 2010, but events brought changes in fortunes that are exposing internal workings of the center and putting its future at risk. Masselli has collected an army of detractors in and beyond the world of publicly funded health care facilities. Authorities enjoy vast power to gather testimony and documents from the center and others.
Those investigators can also summon the talents of colleagues who spend their careers tugging at the financial threads of an organizations. "We'd rather keep it a secret" isn't an answer they accept.