Braille Monitor December 1986
by Kenneth Jernigan
When Tom Stevens was fired as head of the Bureau for the Blind in Missouri in 1984, the man who was leading the parade in making the charges of "conflict of interest" was Joseph O'Hara, the head of the Division of Family Services, which was the parent agency of the Bureau. In the name of integrity and protecting the interests of the state, O 'Hara sanctioned locking Stevens out of his office, searching his desk, and various other questionable tactics. O'Hara said that because Stevens had purchased white canes from the National Federation of the Blind (canes which could be had nowhere else and which were sold to the state at a subsidized price) Stevens was guilty of a "conflict of interest."
Only a year later O'Hara, who by now had been promoted to the position of head of the Department of Social Services (the super agency in which the Division of Family Services was housed), was having second thoughts and trying to find a way to settle the lawsuits which his actions had spanned. It will be remembered that the state of Missouri apologized for its behavior and paid $10,000 toward the expenses of the 1985 NFB convention. Throughout all the questionable shenanigans which occurred in Missouri in 1984 and 1985 O'Hara constantly emphasized the necessity for avoiding even the appearance of impropriety by state officials.
Yet, what about O'Hara's own personal behavior? It now develops that his "conflict of interest" (unlike the one he trumped up and never proved against Tom Stevens) was very real and very serious. In 1979 he and his wife established a private company which was allegedly established "to conduct scientific research in the area of human behavior and social welfare." All of that fancy double-talk translates into attempts to get $100,000 fees from private facilities seeking government aid which could only be granted with the sanction of a particular state department--the one, it just so happened, headed by Joseph O'Hara. In 1986 O'Hara was exposed and decided to "resign. " One is never happy to learn that a government official who has been trusted with the responsibility of administering important programs and setting an example for others to follow has failed the test of public scrutiny, but the blind fo Missouri and the nation are certainly not sorry to see O'Hara go. Here are the newspaper accounts of his so-called "resignation":
ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH
THURSDAY, JULY 17, 1988
Official Endorsed Plan For His Firm
by Terry Ganey
Jefferson City--Joseph J. O'Hara, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, gave the department's official endorsement earlier this year to a federal grant application that would have employed a private company headed by O'Hara.
As department director, O'Hara recommended approval of a $4.9 million grant request made by the owners of a troubled St. Louis nursing home to the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration.
If the grant had been approved, Hurnanalysis, Inc., a research firm based in Jefferson City, would have been paid more than $300,000 over five years to evaluate the performance of the project sponsored by the nursing home.
When the request was made, state records show O'Hara was the president of Hurnanalysis, and his wife, Denise F. Polit, was listed as vice president. The non-profit corporation was formed in 1979 to "conduct scientific research in the area of human behavior and social welfare."
O'Hara said Wednesday that he had relinquished his position with the company last month after conferring with deputies of Gov. John D. Ashcroft. O'Hara said the grant application had not been designed to generate business for Hurnanalysis, but to help the North view Village Care Center, 2415 North Kingshighway, meet its obligations to the elderly poor and to the state.
The Department of Social Services, the state's largest agency, enforces laws designed to protect patients in nursing homes and dispenses the Medicaid reimbursement payments for the care of the poor.
"We send lots of letters endorsing grant requests," O'Hara siad. "It was not inappropriate for the agency to make this endorsement. The fact that the owners of this facility sought out my wife's firm did not enter into it. This agency had a legitimate interest in seeing a proposal funded that would help this particular business stay in operation."
He said Ewing Gourley, a financial consultant for Northview Village, had asked Polit to prepare the grant request. Gourley is a former director of the state Division of Family Services.
O'Hara said that if the grant had been approved, it would have allowed North view to collect $20 more per patient per day--a 40 percent increase--in Medicaid Payments. He noted that Northview had been having financial troubles, including difficulty meeting mortgage payments on a $2 million loan from the Missouri Housing Development Commission.
Federal demonstration grants require evaluations of the project being funded. Northview's grant request said the evaluation would be conducted by Hurnanalysis.
"In order to ensure that an objective third party will be responsible for determining the success of the demonstration, the proposed project will be evaluated by an independent contractor, Hurnanalysis, Inc., " the grant application said. It was accompanied by a budget that showed Hurnanalysis would be paid $311,402.
Polit prepared the grant application late last year.
"The work itself did not strike me as having a conflict of interest as long as the state was not making the award directly to me," Polit said. "In general, I have avoided seeking to work for the state. I have felt having Joe being the head of the department has been an obstacle to doing work in this state."
O'Hara's letter recommending approval was written January 3. Michael Spodnick, an official in the Health Care Financing Administration's research and demonstration office in Baltimore, said Wednesday that Northview's application was at first rejected. Spodnick said the applicant had to be the state agency and not the nursing home itself.
When the second application was filed 10 days later--this time naming the Social Services Department as the applicant--O'Hara ordered the reference to Hurnanalysis deleted from the grant application. Spodnick said Wednesday that the state withdrew its grant request last month becauses of troubles at Northview.
The federal government announced June 12 it would stop all Medicare and Medicaid payments for patients at Northview because of problems with the home. The Missouri Division of Aging accused the home in May of violating state regulations and endangering the health, safety, and welfare of the residents. It ordered 25 of the 362 residents removed from the home as soon as possible.
O'Hara said he became aware last month that questions regarding Hurnanalysis were being raised in the state capital. He said he had informed Chuck Miller, Ashcroft's lawyer, and Richard McClure, the governor's chief of staff, of the situation. O'Hara said after meeting with them it was decided that he should discontinue being president of the corporation.
JEFFERSON CITY POST TRIBUNE
AUGUST 27, 1986
A ray of sunshine has peeked through the thunderstorm brewing over Jefferson City. Joseph O'Hara is resigning as director of the state Department of Social Services; for him, the decision is not a moment too soon.
O'Hara claims strong conflict of interest charges had no bearing on his decision; if that's true, he had no business serving as head of a state agency in the first place.
The charges and allegations grew in weight and severity on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, state Auditor Margaret Kelly joined the ranks of the suspicious and demanded Governor Ashcroft review O 'Hara's apparent misuse of his position.
Look at the record:
--O'Hara and his wife had formed Hurnanalysis, Inc., a Jefferson City firm that does research in social work and received support services from the Department of Social Services.
--While serving as social services director, O'Hara also was president of Hurnanalysis and even signed documents as president requesting a federal family planning grant. And in his official capacity he approved a federal grant to a nursing home firm that netted his company a fee of more than $100,000.
--O'Hara used his state telephone number as a contact point for Hurnanalysis, Inc. on documents related to the same grant application.
--As the potential for scandal grew, he resigned as president of Human-alysis--but remains the registered agent.
None of that is conflict of interest?
In announcing the resignation, Governor Ashcroft alluded to O'Hara's "successful management" of the state's burgeoning welfare agency during "times of fiscal constraint." Unfortunately, that successful management was equally applicable to his own company.
We have nothing against state officials delving in the realm of free enterprise, but there are limits on such outside interests. One is integrity.
When an individual accepts the responsibility of guiding a state agency, he has to be willing to put the state's interests above his own and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Joseph O'Hara apparently did not.