Tulare Local Healthcare District CEO Sandra Ormonde and board director Senovia Gutierrez both announce resignation from district at Sept. 24 special meeting
TULARE – A changing of the guard helped get the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) out of bankruptcy and the criminally indicted hands of Healthcare Conglomerate Associates’ (HCCA) Benny Benzeevi and into the care of Adventist Health. Two key leaders on the road to redemption for the hospital district—CEO Sandra Ormonde and board director Senovia Gutierrez—have now both announced their resignations, prompting yet again a search for new leadership.
In her short stint as CEO—beginning May 1, 2019 and ending Dec. 1, 2021—Ormonde oversaw the closing of more than 30 lawsuits, the districts recovery from bankruptcy, the planning of both the future management of Evolutions Fitness Center and completion of the hospital tower, not to mention led the hospital district through a global pandemic.
In a district press release, board president Kevin Northcraft said Ormonde’s tenure with the district has been a phenomenal success.
“When she was hired, we were in bankruptcy and losing money every month. Her passion for the district’s affairs, her fiscal responsibility and her commitment to every district issue has served us extremely well,” Northcraft said. “We now have a bright future, money in the bank, operation of a successful fitness facility and a strong effort to finish the tower.”
Board secretary Xavier Avila told The Sun-Gazette the district has been lucky to have such an exceptional person at the helm.
“She far exceeded expectations. I hate to see her go,” Avila said. “She did an excellent job and she’s going to be missed. She’s one of the smartest, most professional, educated people I’ve ever met.”
Avila said the district hopes to fill the void before Ormonde’s departure in December for the new CEO to work with Ormonde on getting up to speed. The board discussed replacing Ormonde in closed session—labeled “Discussion and Action on public employee appointment of Chief Executive Officer”—at the Sept. 24 special meeting, a move that drew criticism on a lack of transparency in the form of multiple letters read during public comment by Dr. Patricia Drilling Phelps, a member of the Citizens for Hospital Accountability, the community organization whose grassroots efforts led to the indictment of Benzeevi and ousting of three of the five board members who sat during the HCCA days of the district.
In her letter, Drilling Phelps said taxpayers have the right to know whether the hospital board of directors have spent their time and thought to adequately vet all prospective candidates for any public employee position, and especially its critical CEO, whose salary is funded by Tulare taxpayer dollars. To clarify, the position of district CEO, while a public position, is not an elected seat and does not legally require public input or vote.
“When Citizens for Hospital Accountability was formed, it was in response to a rogue public hospital board, one that cared little for discussion in the open session of a public meeting. That board was rampant with backroom deals and serial meetings. It allowed [HCCA] to exploit the district’s resources at will. That board authorized for [HCCA] to seek $22 million in loans without oversight and promoted a $55 million bond, not knowing specifically how the money would be spent,” Drilling Phelps said. “This item and this meeting hastily put together for this purpose is more reminiscent of the Kumar board than it is of the post-Kumar board.”
Dr. Parmod Kumar presided over the hospital board during HCCA’s tenure, and was a staunch supporter of the now-criminally indicted enterprise.
Senovia into the sunset
Board director Senovia Gutierrez also announced her resignation from the hospital district board, effective Oct. 1. Gutierrez, a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree from Fresno State, said she is taking a job with Los Angeles area-based nonprofit Team Hope helping unaccompanied children who cross the Mexican-U.S. border. A mother of five and a Mexican immigrant from Aguascalientes herself, Gutierrez said her decision to resign from the board and help at the border was simple.
“Right now, I believe the children need me more, my skills and my knowledge to help them,” Gutierrez said. “The board is in very good shape right now…I really trust in all my [fellow board members] and they’re going to do a really good job.”
Gutierrez succeeded Kumar in July of 2017 via a recall election—petitioned for by Citizens for Hospital Accountability—where Kumar was recalled by 80% of voters and Gutierrez was overwhelmingly selected as his replacement with three-quarters of the vote. Gutierrez can now say “His recall, was my call” with a laugh, but at the time, the recall process, the election and the resistance to the blowout results that followed presented some major challenges and frustrations for Gutierrez and her family.
Gutierrez and the recall effort posed an immediate threat to Benzeevi’s criminal scheme, as his loyal supporter, Kumar, was on the chopping block. In order to ensure his boss was not recalled, Benzeevi’s bank records show that he hired a consulting firm known as Psy-Group, a former Israeli private intelligence agency specializing in social media manipulation campaigns. The group provided services that included creating web sites, social media pages and pamphlets to spread misinformation about Gutierrez.
Two days before the recall election, on the night of July 9, 2017, a fire broke out at Gutierrez’s son Alex’s home in Tulare. Alex was a member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability and had been Gutierrez’s inspiration to run for Kumar’s seat, and served as her campaign manager. The fire consumed the garage and most of their campaign documents with it. After the blaze, Alex stayed at his mothers place on the orders of the Tulare Fire Department. The next night, the rest of his place went up in flames.
“That was very suspicious to me,” said Gutierrez.
Tulare Fire reports fail to conclude if any foul play was involved in the back-to-back fires that consumed Alex’s livelihood the eve before the election.
Benzeevi failed to declare the $230,000 contribution to Kumar’s campaign, and also attempted to hide the transactions. After the landslide victory in the recall, Gutierrez was ready to get to work, but HCCA had other plans.
“I was so happy to attend my first meeting, but they didn’t let me,” Gutierrez said. “I was chosen by the public, but they didn’t want to accept that.”
Bruce Greene, legal counsel for HCCA and the district board—who is included in the indictment against former HCCA executives Benzeevi and CFO Alan Germany containing 40 felony and six misdemeanor charges including misappropriation of government funds, conflicts of interest, money laundering, embezzlement, theft and failure to disclose funds intended to influence a political campaign—refused to recognize Gutierrez as a “certified member of the TLHCD board in order to preserve HCCA’s current management status with the hospital district. HCCA contended that Gutierrez was never certified even though her election to replace the recalled Kumar had been certified by the Tulare County Registrar of Voters. Kumar had asked for a recount despite being recalled with 80% of the vote and Gutierrez winning with 76% of the vote over opposing candidate Jess Salcido. The recount was completed on Aug. 1, 22 days before the Aug. 23 meeting where HCCA would still not recognize Gutierrez as a board member.
In the time Gutierrez spent in court trying to attain her right to sit on the board, Benzeevi, Greene and Germany convinced then-board members Kumar—who had already been recalled—Linda Wilbourne and Richard Torres to authorize HCCA to seek a loan of up to $22 million on a 3-2 vote, before Gutierrez was sworn in.
Current board member Avila said it’s been a pleasure serving with Gutierrez, and that she played a pivotal role in where the district is today.
“The timing of her election made all the difference in getting the hospital back from HCCA,” Avila said. “Her election took the majority away from the old board.”
In two special board meetings held on July 25, 2017 and Aug. 9, 2017, the three newest board members Kevin Northcraft, Mike Jamaica and Gutierrez voted to rescind HCCA’s authority to seek loans on behalf of the district or spend district money on private lawsuits, change HCCA’s financial reporting to the board from quarterly to monthly and voted to terminate its contract with Greene’s law firm Baker Hostetler.
All of this trouble Gutierrez and the new board members have gone through is to provide Tulare residents with adequate healthcare by finishing the medical tower project 15 years in the making. Now under the ownership of healthcare giant Adventist Health, Gutierrez said she hopes the district continues the momentum they’ve built after she’s gone.
“I hope everyone continues the transparency and accountability to the public. I wish the best for them, and I know they can do that,” Gutierrez said. “[The tower] is a great project, and I hope now it’s going to be completed. That is my greatest wish, to finally complete this.”