YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Sniping Heavy in Battle for Tobacco Dollars


If it's a political rally, forum or fund-raiser, chances are good that Neal Andrews and his pink pamphlets will be there.

Andrews is the pugnacious campaign manager for the Coalition Against Measure O, an initiative sponsored by Community Memorial Hospital that would wrest $260 million in tobacco settlement money from the county and give it to area private hospitals.

"We are fighting a guerrilla campaign," Andrews said. "We will be more flexible, faster, quicker, better than the out-of-town hired guns brought in by Community Memorial."

That's a tall order for a group facing a highly scripted foe with the will and resources to steamroll opponents.

The coalition has roughly 100 members representing half a dozen unions, health agencies and minority advocacy groups.

Both sides say they will use the money for health-care programs.

But Community Memorial charges the coalition with working hand-in-glove with the county, doing its bidding now for greater rewards down the road.

Indeed, some coalition members have strong county ties.

Andrews, the principal spokesman for the group, was assistant administrator of Ventura County Medical Center in 1985 and 1986 and is now the unpaid chairman of the county Mental Health Board.

He also once worked as a consultant for Community Memorial Hospital, which he now publicly vilifies.

Fred Woocher, the attorney representing the coalition, had earlier represented the county in its attempt to keep Measure O off the ballot.

Barry Hammitt heads the Service Employees International Union Local 998, which has about 4,200 member employees who work for the county.

Coalition members and county officials scoff at accusations that they expect to be rewarded for supporting the county's effort to retain the tobacco money--about $10 million a year for the next 25 years.

"They are trying to impugn people with good hearts who have come forward to say Community Memorial is wrong," said County Supervisor Frank Schillo. CMH's bid is "worse than big government, it's big nonprofit flexing its muscle without any accountability."

If the county gets the money, coalition members say they will line up with other interest groups and make their pitch for a piece of it. But if the hospitals get the money, they say, no one will know how it is used.

It's an uphill battle.

Community Memorial has retained Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world's biggest public relations firms, to handle its publicity and Goddard Claussen, a top campaign consulting firm, to design its election campaign strategy. Goddard Claussen was behind the "Harry and Louise" commercials that helped sink First Lady Hillary Clinton's national health-care plan.

And one of Community Memorial's lawyers, Steven Merksamer, is the former chief of staff for ex-Gov. George Deukmejian.

As of July, Community Memorial, facing no organized opposition as yet, had spent $520,000 on the campaign.

Radio spots have aired, mailers have been sent and more are on the way.

Andrews describes his enemies pungently.

"Community Memorial has hired all these political maggots who throw money around to corrupt our government processes," he said. "They will feed on the rotting flesh of corporate gain at our expense."

Former Associate Becomes Adversary

Michael Bakst, executive director of Community Memorial Hospital, is troubled by Neal Andrews.

When Andrews worked as a consultant for CMH several years ago, Bakst said, Andrews proposed a marketing plan that would help Community Memorial compete against Ventura County Medical Center, where Andrews once was an administrator.

"It was his clear intent to make sure the county hospital would not get market share," Bakst said.

Community Memorial rejected the plan and the two parted ways, said Bakst.

Andrews declines to discuss his work for any former clients.

"I am a consultant, I deal with strategic business plans with many health-care districts," he said. "I can't discuss them in any way. I have worked for many clients in Southern California and private hospitals in Ventura County."

Bakst said Andrews approached him again a year ago, this time offering his public relations services.

"He said, 'I can help you enhance the image of your hospital,' " Bakst said. "We rejected it outright. I wasn't crazy about his thoughts on this."

Bakst questions how Andrews could so easily switch sides between his hospital and the county medical center.

"I think he is trying to make a name for himself with the county," Bakst said. "He is trying to feather his nest for when this is all over with."

The 57-year-old Andrews, a Ventura resident, said he was disappointed by Bakst's statements.

"Someone, somewhere sold Bakst a bill of goods that said the county medical center is a threat to his existence," he said. "However it happened, he's obsessed. I expect his head to spin around and him to vomit up green slime when he talks about it. What quality private hospital is threatened by the county?"

Los Angeles Times Articles