Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and his troubled Health Secretary Mandy Cohen are at it again.
Last week, it was reported by North Carolina Heath News that Gov. Cooper and Sec. Cohen have taken over the Department of Social Services (“DSS”) of Cherokee County, North Carolina under the guise that the county was not following proper procedure in placing at-risk children in foster homes. Cohen has appointed one of her deputies to run it, reporting to her. DSS is a department of the county, which is governed by a board of five Republican commissioners independently elected by citizens of Cherokee county.
The basis for Cohen’s takeover is her claim that the custody and visitation agreements that DSS has been using since 2009 are unlawful. What Cohen does not disclose, is that those custody and visitation agreements are the subject of class action litigation, and that their validity will be determined by a federal judge. This was a very unusual move and there is conflicting law governing the situation, because of pending litigation and something called “Rylan’s Law” that allows temporary assume power to correct a situation, then leave. Time will tell if this is a temporary seizure of power or something more partisan and a pre-text for a power grab.
It seems like a stretch for the state to take over a body governed by members of the opposing party when the current controversy is already being resolved by the courts. This is not the first time that Cooper and Cohen have stretched in order to attack Republicans and expand their own political power.
In 2017, Cohen took over the state’s largest Medicaid contractor, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. Cardinal was created by Republicans, the Chairman of the Cardinal Board was a former elected Republican mayor, and Cardinal’s CEO was Richard Topping, a well-known Republican expert in Medicaid.
After pushing out the Cardinal Board, Cohen replaced it politicians loyal to her, including disgraced former Democratic health secretary, Carmen Hooker Odom. Cohen replaced Topping with a former DHHS bureaucrat, who had no previous management experience. At the time, Cardinal controlled nearly $1 billion in Medicaid contracts, and served nearly 1/3 of the state.
As with the attack on Republicans and her takeover in Cherokee County, Cohen’s expansion of her own political power through Cardinal was based on claims of legal ‘noncompliance.’ Specifically, Cohen claimed she was entitled to stack the Cardinal Board with loyalists because Cardinal paid contractually required severance to the CEO she had just ousted.
Also as with Cherokee, Cohen’s public justification for her political actions is only half the truth. The supposed ‘unlawful’ severance payment made by Cardinal had been approved by Cohen before it was made. In a November 3, 2017, email, Cardinal’s General Counsel, Chuck Hollowell, confirms that Cohen’s deputy, Dave Richard, called Hollowell to authorize the severance payment. While agreeing to the severance, Cohen also provided herself with political cover, requiring that Cardinal then repay the same amount back to DHHS.
However, after Cardinal severanced Topping, Cohen reneged on the agreement, and instead used the payment as an excuse to oust the Board and take control of the entire company. In a November 27, 2017, letter, Cohen misled lawmakers about her knowledge and approval of the payments, describing the severance payments as “exorbitant,” and said they were made “despite explicit instructions to the Cardinal board of directors regarding the lawful management of public funds.”
Cohen went on to state that “DHHS [has]…found Cardinal’s compensation structure to be inappropriate.” However, as with her takeover of DSS in Cherokee County, Cohen failed to disclose that the matter was being actively litigated in court and that a judge, not Cohen, would determine the lawfulness of Cardinal’s compensation.
While Cohen was misleading lawmakers, her deputy, Dave Richard, was misleading the courts. In an after-the-fact attempt to paper over her political power grab, Cohen sued the already-ousted Cardinal Board and CEO. In the lawsuit, which was signed by Richard and sworn as truthful, Richard claims that the severance was paid “without DHHS approval.” This is despite Richard’s direct approval to Hollowell on November 3.
There is a clear trend in North Carolina. The Cooper and Cohen team have demonstrated their willingness to attack Republicans and expand their political power. In addition to misleading the public and the media, Cohen has misled lawmakers in writing, and her deputy has signed a sworn legal document he knows to be false.
It’s time for accountability in North Carolina. While Cooper has shown he is willing to collude with his appointees, lawmakers should begin to question Cohen’s actions, and determine what she knew and when.