ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was April Fool’s Day and David Proffitt was a man with a problem.
He had just resigned from a prominent position as head of Acadia Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Maine, after months of constant negative media attention and staff allegations that he threatened employees, yelled at meetings and created a hostile workplace. His 26-year career appeared to be unraveling. His detractors posted hundreds of comments on a local news website saying they doubted anyone would hire him.
But Proffitt was not the type of person who easily admits defeat. Publicly, he told the press he wanted to take a break and spend more time with his family. But just two weeks later, on April 14, 2011, he sent an email to a state agency more than 1,000 miles away to inquire about a job opening at a facility for the mentally ill and dangerous. The agency had just asked the program’s longtime administrator to resign. It needed someone who could correct years of problems with staff morale and patient care. The facility in question was the Minnesota Security Hospital in rural St. Peter, Minn., about 70 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
This was Proffitt’s chance to redeem himself — if Minnesota did not look too deeply into his past.
As luck would have it, officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services did not bother to investigate his time at his former employers in any detail, according to interviews with DHS officials and 57 pages of documents related to the hiring provided by the agency in response to an MPR News request.
They did not talk to former supervisors before they offered Proffitt the job and instead relied on conversations with colleagues who did not oversee his work, said Jennifer Service, the former medical director of the Minnesota Security Hospital who was responsible for making the calls. They did not attempt to contact any of the disgruntled former employees, Service said.
If they had, they might have learned that state investigators found Proffitt failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of a child by an employee of Acadia Hospital and allowed the employee to continue working with children. Or that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services threatened to stop payment to the hospital for violating state and federal regulations on patient rights and discharge planning. Or that Proffitt threatened to destroy the careers of doctors who challenged him, leading psychiatrist Bryan Woods, who worked with Proffitt at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Maine, to describe him as angry, insecure and vindictive.
With a more thorough review, DHS officials also might have learned that a psychologist claimed Proffitt attacked him during a heated argument about when the hospital should restrain patients. The psychologist, Josh Lawrence, said Proffitt grabbed him by the neck and shoulders and tried to hold him down. “His point was ‘how would it feel to be a patient and have someone do something to you?’” Lawrence said.
“There was no warning about it … He just did it,” Lawrence said. “He’s a person who has power. He’s my boss … It was pretty intense.”
Lawrence did not report it, but other doctors at the facility said they were aware of the incident. Psychologist Jessica Pollard, who said she witnessed the assault, confirmed Lawrence’s account of what happened.
DHS officials also did not conduct a 50-state criminal background check, which would have found that Proffitt was arrested in 1992 for assaulting his wife. And they opted not to take the time to investigate his claims that he received a Ph.D. in Health Management a few years earlier or that he specialized in “therapeutic recreation” at the University of Nebraska and Arizona State University.
If they had checked, they would have learned that Proffitt received a bachelor’s degree in science and education from the University of Nebraska, “with a focus in recreation and leisure studies,” according to a school spokesperson. At Arizona State University, a spokesperson confirmed Proffitt earned a master’s in recreation. Neither school offered a specialty in therapeutic recreation at the time Proffitt attended, the schools confirmed.
Proffitt’s claim of a doctorate degree is unverifiable because it came from an online unaccredited school, Warren National University, which was shut down by the state of Wyoming three years ago. Proffitt’s use of the degree — in Maine, he liked to go by “Dr. David S. Proffitt, Ph.D.” — may have violated a Maine law that forbids using “false academic degrees” to conduct business or apply for a job. DHS officials did not attempt to contact Warren National University at the address Proffitt provided on his job application. If they had, they would have learned that the address is linked to another unaccredited online school, Preston University, in Los Angeles. Preston University officials did not return calls for comment, and emails sent to the school were returned as “undeliverable.” An employee of a company that claims to handle Preston University’s student records said he doesn’t know why Proffitt would use the school’s address.
“Preston University has never had any student records from Warren National,” said Gary Lane, of Preston Group International.
A short, troubled tenure in Minnesota
After being out of work for nearly four months, Proffitt was hired as the administrator of the Minnesota Security Hospital in August 2011. He was given the top salary for the position — $108,388 a year. He moved his family to Minnesota to begin his new job.
His tenure at the hospital was problematic from the start. Employees complained that Proffitt was hostile, loud, abrasive and threatening. He told employees that he wanted to treat patients more humanely and cut down on the use of restraints and seclusion, but security personnel and psychiatrists said Proffitt failed to clearly explain how they should handle violent clients. In December, Proffitt fired a psychiatrist who had instructed employees to handcuff a patient who was cutting himself with shards from a broken marker so they could remove the weapon.
Within a few weeks, a mass exodus of the facility’s top psychiatry staff began. By early February, most of the facility’s psychiatrists had left. On their way out, they alleged that Proffitt had created a hostile work environment.
DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson met with several of the psychiatrists in December and asked a private law firm to investigate the hostile work environment claims. Publicly, the department continued to support Proffitt, but on Tuesday, DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry abruptly ordered him to resign or be fired. Proffitt chose to resign.
Almost one year to the day after being forced out of his former position, Proffitt had again lost his job and was leaving behind a facility reeling with staff unrest. Like Acadia Hospital in Maine, the Minnesota Security Hospital will now begin hiring doctors to replace those who left and restoring badly damaged relationships with the employees who remain.
It did not have to end this way, officials at the Department of Human Services now acknowledge. If department officials had more thoroughly investigated Proffitt’s background, officials said, it’s possible the department never would have hired him.
Although Barry, the deputy commissioner, has vowed to make changes in how the agency vets applicants for high-profile positions, DHS officials have failed to hold anyone in the department publicly accountable for the hiring decision.
A paper trail raises questions
DHS officials declined requests for interviews with the people directly involved in the final hiring process — including Assistant Commissioner Maureen O’Connell, then-CEO of State Operated Services Mike Tessneer, and Commissioner Lucinda Jesson. Proffitt also declined to comment.
But agency emails, planning notes and other documents provided in response to a data request from MPR News reveal that department officials conducted a lackluster review of Proffitt’s credentials and work history.
The paper trail begins with Proffitt’s April 14 email. He introduced himself to the department as a person with “a great passion for psychiatric health care” and “a deeply held value of personal resiliency.”
His email was marred with typos and grammatical mistakes. “As a public hospital leader I have lead significant turn arounds including leading a facility through receivership and gain public praise from the court master and plaintiffs,” he wrote.
A day later, Proffitt received a reply from Tessneer, the head of State Operated Services. “Thanks for your interest,” Tessneer wrote. “I am forwarding your email to Lena Garcia who is our recruiter.”
Less than a week later, DHS formally posted the Minnesota Security Hospital administrator job opening. The minimum qualifications included “a bachelor’s degree or higher in Business Administration, Healthcare Administration or related field” and five years of management experience. The posting noted the department was looking for a “change agent” and a “visionary leader” with excellent communication skills. It also said the new administrator would be subject to reference and criminal background checks.
A month later, two employees from the agency’s human resources department held a meeting to review resumes of the job candidates. They sorted them into two piles — those who met the minimum qualifications and those who did not. On May 20, four DHS officials held a meeting to select which candidates would make it to the next round.
Proffitt made the cut. A phone interview was arranged for June 14, followed by an in-person interview in Minnesota on June 27. Two other candidates, Anthony Walters and Troy Mire, also made it to the final stages of the process. Walters, former administrator of the Community Behavioral Health Hospital in Bemidji, Minn., is the CEO for Universal Health Services. Mire is the clinical program director for Osawatomie State Hospital and Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas.
At some point, DHS deputy commissioner Anne Barry said, two DHS officials became aware of employee dissatisfaction at Acadia Hospital. The officials, Tessneer and O’Connell, asked Proffitt about rumors of problems in Maine during at least one of the interviews, Barry said, but no one shared that information with Commissioner Jesson until after O’Connell offered Proffitt the job.
Barry said she did not know how the DHS officials became aware of Proffitt’s troubles in Maine. She said she is not aware of any phone conversations between Proffitt’s former employers and DHS officials. It’s possible, she said, that the information came from an Internet search. However, there is no record of any communication about this in the documents provided to MPR News. For his part, Proffitt told the interviewers that the problems at Acadia Hospital came from employees who opposed his efforts to reduce the use of restraints and seclusion, according to Jennifer Service, who was the medical director of the Minnesota Security Hospital at the time and attended the interview. “What Proffitt said was, ‘Listen, I made mistakes in my career, and I’ve learned from them,’” Service said. “We all thought he seemed genuine.”
Barry similarly said DHS officials “thought that David’s responses were reasonable.” No one thought there was a need to contact the Maine hospital or investigate further, Barry said.
The hiring process was moving forward, but then DHS ran into a problem. On July 1, the state government shut down for 20 days, halting all hiring activities. In the meantime, one of the three finalists dropped out. Some people involved in the hiring process thought the agency should reopen the search and start from scratch. But the agency decided to move forward.
Proffitt returned to Minnesota for a final round of interviews on Aug. 4, Barry told MPR News. There is no record of this meeting in the documents provided by DHS. Barry said the department routinely deletes emails related to job searches after the positions have been filled.
That same day, Service, the facility’s medical director, called the people Proffitt listed as references. For the most part, the comments were positive, she recalled, although one person noted Proffitt “rubs people the wrong way.”
But as she made her way down the list, Service realized the references did not include any supervisors, just colleagues. The list included some people who did not work directly with Proffitt, including a judge and a forensic examiner, she said. When Service realized the problem, she immediately contacted Lena Garcia, the DHS recruiter, to ask for a list of supervisors, she said. Garcia provided the list, and Service began trying to reach people just hours before DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson was set to meet with Proffitt for a final interview, she said.
“None of the supervisors ever called me back,” Service said.
She said she notified DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and other top DHS officials involved in the hiring process. No one seemed to care, she said.
O’Connell offered Proffitt the job the next day. DHS received a “letter of reference” from Michelle Hood, Proffitt’s supervisor at Acadia Hospital in Maine, three days after O’Connell made the job offer. DHS declined to provide a copy of the letter to MPR News, citing data privacy law.
Hood declined an interview request.
Barry said that by the time Jesson learned of the negative media coverage in Maine, it was too late to rescind the job offer.
The department’s explanation
DHS directed all requests for comment to Barry, the deputy commissioner, who was not directly involved in the decision to hire Proffitt. Barry said the agency needs to do a better job when vetting candidates for high level positions.
“I think we can learn a lot from this particular situation,” she said.
Barry said the department’s licensing division is debating whether to ask the state Legislature to grant it greater authority to investigate job applicants. For example, she said, currently the agency is not allowed to conduct a 50-state criminal background check unless it suspects a person might have a criminal history in other states.
“You have to have reason to look more broadly,” she said. “There was nothing in the reference check that would’ve suggested to us that we should do more background checking.”
As for Proffitt’s educational background, Barry initially said DHS verified the information. But when presented with conflicting information about Proffitt’s degrees during an interview with MPR News on Tuesday, Barry and Human Resources Director Connie Jones admitted they did not know whether anyone had verified the information Proffitt provided.
The department, Barry said, is only required to confirm the minimum degree required for a position. The Minnesota Security Hospital job only required a bachelor’s degree, so the department did not need to verify any other educational credentials, Barry said.
When shown the form that Proffitt provided that listed his Ph.D. and the incorrect address for Warren National University, Barry said, “I think there’s a really legitimate question about why you would put that on your resume, particularly if it wasn’t a requirement of the position.”
Barry said she will ask the agency to consider whether it should begin checking the degrees of top applicants, regardless of whether the degrees are necessary for the job. The agency is already debating whether it should routinely search for applicants online to look for potential concerns, Barry said, prompted by the controversy over Proffitt’s hiring.
Barry declined to say whether hiring Proffitt was a mistake, but she acknowledged that department officials might not have hired him if they had known more about his past.
Barry did not ask Proffitt to resign because of the problems in his past, she said, but rather for his failure to show the kind of leadership skills the Minnesota Security Hospital needs. She faulted the hiring process for not evaluating whether Proffitt had the right temperament to oversee a center with 800 employees and nearly 400 patients — before it hired him and gave him authority over the sprawling facility.
“I try not to judge others, but one of the things we learned from this was for high-level positions, particularly around direct client care, we need to take candidates and put them under a kind of pressure that would demonstrate to us who and what they are when under pressure,” she said.
Once in Minnesota, Barry acknowledged, Proffitt proved that he was not the right person for the job.
The original article may be seen on Minnesota Public Radio’s website at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/02/28/minnesota-security-hospital-turmoil/.
Copyright (c) 2012 Minnesota Public Radio. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.