Under pressure from state regulators, Baltimore Behavioral Health Inc. has shaken up its corporate structure by taking away the voting rights of six family members who have long sat on the nonprofit mental health clinic's eight-seat board of directors.
The board will now have just four voting members, led by Towson lawyer John E. Sibrea as its new president, and two other newcomers. Only Terry T. Brown, a longtime BBH vice president, will retain his voting seat.
Sibrea said in an interview that he will serve only until June, suggesting more change to come.
The moves come in response to a letter last week from Thomas V. Russell, inspector general at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Russell told the nonprofit to explain how it was complying with state law that says in order for an organization to receive state mental health funds, no immediate family member of any employee can serve as a voting board member.
"This is an acceptable response to his inquiry," health department spokesman David Paulson said Monday. A letter from Sibrea outlining the changes was faxed to Russell's office Thursday, the day before Russell's noon Friday deadline.
The Baltimore Sun published last week a two-part investigation of Baltimore Behavioral Health that revealed high Medicaid billings at the clinic. According to the investigation, former BBH patients and employees, as well as some outside doctors, say the clinic has been diagnosing mental illness — and collecting public funds to treat it — in some patients whose main affliction is drug addiction.
Nonprofit experts said BBH exemplified bad practice for tax-exempt charities in part because of the family's dominance of its board. Last year, the six relatives were paid a combined $1.4 million, an 84 percent jump from 2004, according to tax filings.
Since the investigation was published, Maryland lawmakers have said they plan to examine the nonprofit's operations and consider legislative changes. Health Secretary John M. Colmers also said his department's interest in BBH has intensified. A unit within the department had launched an investigation earlier this year.
One new board member, medical malpractice attorney Jay Miller, said Sibrea asked him last week to serve as vice chairman. Miller chairs a Baltimore County program that helps lawyers and judges battling substance abuse.
Miller said he hopes to help "right the ship." Like the other newcomers, Miller said he will not be paid to serve. Previously, all eight of BBH's board members were paid, either as executives or for their board service.
Miller said he respects Sibrea. "He's a moral guy, an ethical guy and a great guy," he said. "If he's going to be the leader, I'm on board."
Sibrea said his letter to the inspector general did not mention Miller because he sent it before Miller had accepted Sibrea's invitation.
Sibrea also recruited Kent E. Schiner, whom he described in the letter to Russell as a former director of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish community service organization.
The fourth voting member will be Brown. Last week, Brown took a leave of absence as vice chairman of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., a quasi-public agency that distributes state drug treatment grants to Baltimore providers. Greg Warren, the agency's president, said Brown indicated he wanted to focus on his work at BBH, which has never applied for a grant.
Sibrea said Morris Hill, whom he has known for 45 years, asked him to take the reins of the board. His letter says Hathaway requested he join.
Court records show that Sibrea represented another family-related nonprofit, Baltimore Addictions Treatment Center, during its bankruptcy in 1997.
Sibrea also had been a lawyer for Hill's stepdaughter, Susan Scotto, and her husband, Dr. Nicholas Scotto, in 2005, court records show. She is the chief clinical officer at BBH, and Nicholas Scotto is chief physician. Both Scottos were board members until last week.
Sibrea said in an interview Monday that he would "absolutely" act independently. He noted that in the mid-1990s he served as a local chairman for the nonprofit March of Dimes and was earlier appointed to a drug and alcohol addiction board by then-Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson.