Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven

By Shereen Siewert

In his letter resigning from the North Central Health Care Board this month, Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven sharply criticized the investigation into now former-CEO Michael Loy as lacking leadership and accused Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs of “operating in secret.”

“I cannot in good conscience remain on the board of directors after experiencing and witnessing the debacle that was the investigation into former CEO Michael Loy,” Bliven wrote. The investigation centered on a retention policy that provided loans for key employees to pay down student loan debt. Loy was one of several employees who received a loan.

Bliven’s letter, dated Aug. 3 and obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review in an open records request, raises new questions about the investigation and its processes and revealed that former NCHC Board Chair Jeff Zriny was forced out of his role before the board was informed.

Jeff Zriny (Contributed photo)

“There should have been an NCHC board meeting to discuss the situation as it related to Chair Jeff Zriny – or at least a meeting of the executive committee,” Bliven told Gibbs, in his letter. “Someone made a unilateral decision to force Jeff Zriny’s resignation in December prior to having any investigation into the allegations. Furthermore, there was no communication with the NCHC board over his resignation.”

Gibbs, who now chairs the board, responded in a letter by confirming he agreed to a meeting with then-chair Zriny and Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard in December during which Leonhard determined Zriny exceeded his authority in offering Loy additional employee benefits. At that time, Gibbs said, Leonhard advised Zriny that he would request a special meeting of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors to consider removing Zriny – who then resigned.

Report cost doubled – and is expected to rise

Bliven also raises questions about how the funding to pay Milwaukee law firm von Briesen & Roper for the investigation was approved. Financial records obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review show the report cost taxpayers $82,385.50 to date, more than double what Bliven said the NCHC board authorized. Gibbs said that amount is expected to increase.

“The NCHC board authorized an expenditure to pay von Briesen for their services,” Bliven’s letter states. “My recollection is that amount was $40,000. I would be very surprised if the final amount of the expenditure was under the authorized $40,000. Again, there was very little communication about the payments being made to von Briesen. I’m still in the dark on the cost, the authorization of expenditures (if it was done by the executive committee), and what took so much time in the process.” 

Interim CEO Jill Meschke said she has been authorizing invoices for payment since taking on her new role.

Jill Meschke: NCHC Interim Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer (Photo: NCHC)

“General NCHC funds have been used for the payments from the administration budget, which is expense borne by all three partner counties,” Meschke told Wausau Pilot & Review. Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade Counties each provide funding for NCHC as part of a tri-county agreement.

Bliven, who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, openly questioned the investigation itself and said there were very few interviews of people involved that could “shed light on how and why things happened.”

The report resulted in Loy’s resignation, repayment of a $60,000 student loan “retention bonus” that he had already offered to repay, and a $25,000 severance, which includes $17,023.57 in accrued paid time off that Loy had earned during his tenure, Gibbs said.

“I have a number of concerns around the actual investigation – or lack thereof,” Bliven said. “I can’t help but wonder if the investigation was actually fact-finding and objective or if there was some level of predetermination of the outcome. There is language and evidence within the document completed by Mr. Russell that leads me to this concern.”

Gibbs, in a response to Bliven, rejected that argument and insisted that the firm used the “utmost integrity” in conducting the investigation. “Evidence of that is reflected in that there were no objections to the factual findings detailed in the report,” Gibbs said.

“Operating in secret” with an unclear forward path

In his two-page letter, Bliven details a laundry list of concerns and specifically points to legal questions surrounding Loy’s administrative leave, which was changed to leave without pay effective July 1 – but signed on July 13. That, Bliven charged, was a “negotiating tactic” that could have been avoided if the executive committee had taken formal action. Communication from Gibbs to the board, Bliven said, has been “virtually non-existent.”

“I even had to ask for an agenda item for our June meeting to get an update on the CEO situation,” Bliven wrote. “You didn’t even have the foresight to put a communication item on the agenda. Operating in secret and without information going to the board is simply unacceptable.”

“Your entire premise for the investigation into Michael Loy is that NCHC is a public entity held to standards of the public sector,” Bliven went on to say. “Secrecy, then, should not be the modus operandi of the board chair or executive committee. Unfortunately, I often felt your concern was more of making sure you would not look bad in the public eye rather than just making sure to communicate out what was necessary – even to the rest of the board.”

But Gibbs said the June agenda item was omitted because he hadn’t received additional information to be shared with the board at that time.

“I fully intended to amend the agenda once I received communication from NCHC’s legal counsel, awaiting responses from Mr. Loy’s legal counsel,” Gibbs said.

Kurt Gibbs (Photo: NCHC)

Bliven also accused Gibbs of holding an illegal meeting of the Marathon County Executive Committee when Loy was pressured into accepting a salary package well below the rate recommended by consultants. The Nov. 1, 2017 meeting long ago passed the two-year threshold set for an open meetings complaint to be filed with the Marathon County District Attorney.

“What are the proper accountability measures for conducting an unnoticed business meeting?” Bliven asked.

Gibbs called Bliven’s interpretation of the meeting “inaccurate” and said he does not believe that a quorum was “somehow present” at the time. He also pushed back against accusations of irresponsible leadership, saying he holds his “responsibility to lead with integrity and sound moral character in high regard.”

Bliven said there has been little discussion to identify a path forward for the board or NCHC, demonstrating a lack of planning by the board and executive committee.

“I am not aware of any planning in terms of finding his replacement, discussions of changing the organizational structure, or just general communications to the community and employees of NCHC,” Bliven wrote. “This is a lack of leadership and planning for the future of this organization.”

In a letter to Wausau Pilot & Review, Gibbs defended the investigation and its outcome.

“The purpose of the investigation was to determine the truth, which was successfully achieved at the  conclusion of the investigation,” Gibbs wrote. “The report states that employment benefits pursuant to a policy were  offered that were not approved by any governing authority – contrary to language in the tri-county  agreement and North Central Health Care’s core values.”

Despite his misgivings, Bliven remains optimistic about the future of NCHC and said he has great confidence in the organization’s employees.

“Over the last four years, I have seen tremendous growth and impact in the delivery of services to the most vulnerable people in our community,” Bliven said. “I have seen the employees of NCHC compassionately serve citizens who have significant drug, alcohol, and mental health issues. The partnership between law enforcement and NCHC has never been stronger than it is today. That partnership is strong because of the leaders in key positions at NCHC.”

Loy, almost immediately after his resignation, joined Geared Equity in Kronenwetter as managing director. The search for a new NCHC CEO has not yet begun.

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