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Public job, private salary

April 11, 2006

AS FAR AS THE PUBLIC KNOWS, Antionette Smith Epps, the chief executive of the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, is earning $225,000 a year to turn around the scandal-plagued county facility. But if a previously undisclosed employment agreement is ratified over the next few weeks, Epps could make an additional $60,000 over the next three years, all paid for by the California Endowment, the state's largest private health foundation, which promotes increased access to healthcare.

This extra-budgetary salary arrangement was surprisingly simple to arrange. Epps says she told her new bosses that $225,000 wasn't enough. So Thomas Garthwaite, then chief administrator of Los Angeles County Health Services, asked the county's human resource office to increase the offer. HR declined but suggested that he find a "creative solution."

Garthwaite then turned to the endowment and asked if it could pay Epps as much as $30,000 a year for no additional work. Again, he was shot down, because the nonprofit feared such a payment would be improper. But endowment Director Robert Ross offered another idea: Epps could take a faculty position with the UCLA School of Public Health, and the endowment would fund it.

Final terms between the endowment and UCLA are being hammered out. All of the parties involved insist that the plan is on the up and up, and the school says Epps will be working for her moonlight pay (that's nice, considering the money at stake). It's true that Epps has perhaps the most thankless yet important job in the county, and it's also true that there are other county employees who work on the side with local universities. Still, this deal is bothersome both in its origins and how it is playing out.

The difference here is that a third party is so blatantly supporting a public employee's salary, and doing so under pressure from local government officials with whom it presumably interacts. The amount of money UCLA says it will pay Epps happens to coincide with the amount she told the county she needed to pay her new mortgage in California. Does Epps -- and the county -- now owe favors to the university and the endowment? Don't taxpayers have the right to know such potential conflicts exist? Fortunately, they do now.

Still, it's worrisome that this was the county's idea, according to several parties involved. That raises the question of whether other local public officials have similar arrangements. Michael Henry, head of the county's human resources, says that this is the only such deal that he's aware of.

One crucial lesson from the King/Drew debacle is that transparency is paramount. Epps' off-the-books salary makes us believe more questions need to be asked about how this was allowed to happen.

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