HealthcareFormer Illinois public health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike under ethics...

Former Illinois public health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike under ethics investigation

Sinai Health System includes three hospitals licensed by IDPH during the last 12 months of Ezike’s state tenure: Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center, Schwab Rehab Hospital and Holy Cross Hospital.

Illinois hospitals must display their up-to-date state licenses in public places, and under the Illinois Hospital Licensing Act, IDPH reviews Illinois hospitals to ensure they have sufficient capital and medical staff to care for patients.

Vaught disputed the meaning of the phrase “licensing decision” in the revolving door prohibition, saying Ezike and her public health department had no control over whether a hospital could renew its Illinois license.

“I do not believe DPH has any discretion to deny renewal if the hospital files as required by the statute,” Vaught said. “It’s automatically renewed. … Licensing is a perfunctory, ministerial act. … It’s not a decision.”

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In her April 11 email to the inspector general, Ezike said her Department of Public Health ethics officer “confirmed there were no regulatory or licensing decisions made by DPH during the prior year, apart from a perfunctory renewal that every hospital received on December 31, 2021.”

Discussing a new job

Sinai’s longstanding former CEO Karen Teitelbaum announced her departure from the nonprofit medical system in September 2021, and Ezike was soon a leading candidate to replace her.

Email communications obtained by the BGA through open records laws show Ezike contacted then-IDPH ethics officer Evan McGinley in February — a month before she resigned — to solicit guidance about her upcoming transition to the private sector.

IDPH said it could not provide the BGA any records showing the analysis or advice McGinley provided Ezike – even though he was not her private attorney but a state employee serving a top government leader.

“The Acting Ethics Officer for IDPH at the time had preliminary discussions on the ‘Revolving Door’ provisions and how they apply to Dr. Ezike,” an IDPH spokesman said in an emailed response to BGA questions. “Those discussions were confidential.”

McGinley declined comment.

Days after Ezike’s February outreach to McGinley, records show, Governor Pritzker’s ethics officer Whitney Rosen responded to a separate communication from Ezike.

Emily Bittner, Pritzker’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, said Ezike never gave Rosen any information about where Ezike might land, and Rosen neither conducted an analysis for Ezike nor gave her specific advice.

Instead, the BGA found, Rosen sent Ezike a single page summary of the revolving door law, and spelled out the prohibition from negotiating with an entity that lobbied Ezike’s agency while Ezike was in office.

Rosen’s summary of the law added that Ezike could engage in “informational interviews” that discuss employment and the salary range. Discussions beyond a salary range were prohibited, Rosen wrote.

Government records and news accounts suggest Sinai was already talking with Ezike about the CEO position.

On March 4, while Ezike was still IDPH Director, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Ezike “has been offered a job as the next President and CEO of Sinai. … Sinai Chicago gave an offer to Ezike for the top role in February, according to a Crain’s source. It’s unclear if she has accepted the offer.”

WBEZ also reported that day that “the Sinai board of directors has been authorized to negotiate an offer with Ezike.”

Vaught said Ezike did not improperly negotiate for the Sinai CEO position while she was in state office.

“I can tell you that she did not engage in any negotiations related to employment while she was still at IDPH,” Vaught told the BGA.

“Someone having a conversation, someone reaching out to someone and saying, ‘We’d like to talk to you about a job,’ does not constitute an offer, does not constitute a negotiation,” Vaught said. “So having a conversation does not trigger the revolving door.”

In her April 11 email to Haling, Ezike said she did not negotiate for her new Sinai position until after she left IDPH.

“After my final day with the State, I began discussions and negotiations with Sinai,” Ezike wrote to Haling on April 11. “I intend to sign a contract with Sinai this week and will begin employment in June.”

In its most recent public tax filing, Sinai disclosed spending $280,000 annually on lobbying, and separate state records show Sinai retained two firms that lobbied the Illinois public health department.

A Sinai Health spokeswoman told the BGA Sinai welcomed Ezike as its new CEO but would not answer questions about her salary or hiring. Sinai paid its last CEO $1.2 million per year, according to its federal tax filings.

“In consideration of a current review of the process by the Office of the Executive Inspector General, Sinai will not comment further,” spokeswoman Olivia Arns said.

Bittner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pritzker, called the questions raised by the BGA “perverse,” and noted that Sinai is one of Illinois’ most essential medical institutions — a nationally recognized safety net and urban teaching system that treats mostly Black and Latino patients at its two main hospitals.

“Dr. Ezike demonstrated her strong moral compass and commitment to the people of Illinois every day for three years during an awful global pandemic,” Bittner said in an emailed statement.

“It is perverse to try to tarnish a strong and respected leader who could go anywhere she wants but chose to again serve the most vulnerable,” Bittner said.

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