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Says Chronicle of Philanthropy, UT Southwestern's Still Got Some Explaining to Do

Dr. Kern Wildenthal, president of UT Southwestern
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A lengthy, scolding essay in the subscription-only Chronicle of Philanthropy this morning reads like a mash-up: It touches on KTVT-Channel 11's canning Robert Riggs earlier this month; UT Southwestern Medical Center's list of 6,400 VIPs the hospital swears don't receive special treatment; and outgoing UT Southwestern president Kern Wildenthal's extravagant taste in wine and dinner parties. Quite simply, Pablo Eisenberg, the author of the piece and a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, doesn't think the local media has done enough digging into how UT Southwestern spends its dough, and frets that Riggs' ouster from the CBS affiliate will now let Wildenthal, who departs in September, and his successors get away with fiscal murder. Writes Eisenberg, Riggs' "departure leaves behind an investigation that discovered disturbing allegations but had not yet been completed."

After the jump, a few more highlights.

Writes Eisenberg:

The revelations about the VIP list comes on the back of a lawsuit by Larry Gentilello, a professor at the Southwestern Medical Center, who says the center's system treats wealthy and poor people differently, sending affluent people to private hospitals and clinics and needy people to Parkland Hospital, a county public institution.

Both Dr. Wildenthal, who is resigning from his position in September, and Dr. [John] McConnell, who is rumored to be in line for the president's job, said that the Southwestern Medical Center's practices did not differ from those of many other large nonprofit hospitals throughout the country. If they are correct, the Senate Finance Committee, which has already been raising questions about whether hospitals deserve tax-exempt status, may have some more work to do. Clearly, there is a need to survey the nonprofit hospitals in the country to assess how many of them are operating a two-tiered system of access and care.

Eisenberg then goes on to quote Ron Brittain, nephew of the Jesse Brittain Memorial Fund's namesake. In February, CBS11 ran a piece about how UT Southwestern wined and dined hospital officials over the holidays using dough intended to train hospital workers. Ron Brittain was appalled: "They robbed him. It's just wrong. It's thievery."

The November and February revelations prompt Eisenberg to write:

Dr. Wildenthal's fund-raising expenses from charitable donations raise a number of practical and ethical questions:

* Are such expenditures a necessary part of fund raising?

* Wouldn't wealthy donors have given their money without receiving an expensive bottle of wine or other costly gift?

* Is it right to use tax-deductible contributions for what might be called excessive and, sometimes, unnecessary gifts and entertainment, especially when donors believe their money is supporting essential programs?

* Are there and should there be limits to such expenditures?

* Who should approve and monitor these fund-raising expenses? Is that the job of nonprofit boards, professional associations, or the state attorney general's office?

Eisenberg's also critical of the local media for not further digging into UT Southwestern's books; he claims The Dallas Morning News has "been working on an investigation, but the newspaper has so far published nothing." He also wonders why local organizations that deal directly with or keeps tabs on UT Southwestern haven't said boo about its open-wallet practices:

The seeming absence of advocacy or watchdog groups that might have focused on issues of nonprofit accountability and taxpayer-subsidized expenditures raises a serious question about civil society's ability to serve as a check against government intrusion, corporate power, and malfunctioning nonprofit organizations.

And now CBS's decision to lay off one of its award-winning reporters and cut its investigative unit from four reporters to one leaves the city even more vulnerable to the potential corruption of powerful institutions. Cutbacks like the one in Dallas are depriving news outlets nationwide of their ability to investigate nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and businesses.

--Robert Wilonsky

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