The Getaway

What the Paul Levy saga says about the city’s most powerful institutions.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

FORGET THE “CLOSE PERSONAL FRIEND.” If we cared that much about “inappropriate relationships” between powerful men and young subordinates, Bill Clinton wouldn’t continue to be such a big draw.

Forget the humiliated wife, a stroke survivor in late middle age. If we cared that much about narcissistic husbands dumping ailing spouses, Newt Gingrich’s name wouldn’t be uttered in the same breath as “prospective presidential candidate.”

No, what is so absorbing about the Paul Levy story is less what it says about one preening hospital executive’s peculiar idea of workplace propriety than what it says about us, about Boston, where a self-aggrandizing media darling sold himself as the savior of struggling local institutions while ducking any scrutiny for conduct decidedly unbecoming a messiah.

Levy, of course, is the president and chief executive officer of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the man who received a public wrist slap for installing his “close personal friend,” a former student decades his junior, in jobs so vital to BIDMC that they did not exist until she arrived and vanished when she departed. For years, some of the hospital’s board members had known about Farzana Mohamed, the woman in question, whom Levy has known since she was an MIT undergraduate and he was her academic adviser. Earlier this year, the board fined him $50,000 for a “major lapse in judgment” that, by my count, lasted more than a decade.

The particulars of Levy’s extracurricular activities are of even less interest to most of us than his musings on youth soccer or sunsets that he posts with numbing frequency alongside his views about healthcare on a blog he calls, with characteristic humility, Running a Hospital. But his heedlessness — and his supervisors’ tolerance of it — provides a window into how power is exercised in the incestuous upper reaches of this still-parochial city’s most prominent institutions. In the clubby confines of BIDMC’s executive offices, Levy’s misconduct would have been winked at indefinitely had an anonymous complaint not thrust it into public view.

Levy oversaw the cleanup of Boston Harbor when he was at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and then successfully resuscitated BIDMC, what had been a failing hospital. These accomplishments earned him a handsome salary and some well-deserved acclaim, but they also bought him a license to stash a “close personal friend” on the hospital payroll and to use his blog to regularly impugn the integrity of competitors and union organizers. They also encouraged him to engage in an orgy of self-absorption that he has managed to market as “transparency” to a city full of smitten scribes.

SO HOW IS LEVY’S survival a distinctly Boston story? This is a city where memories are long, connections are deep, and major nonprofits are run mainly by white men with the wealth and civic commitment to forgo compensation for the prestige of charitable oversight. In many places, nonprofit organizations hire professional search firms to identify candidates qualified to assume the duties of a trustee. Here, the same familiar faces turn up again and again around those polished mahogany tables. Stephen B. Kay, chairman of the BIDMC board, must need a personal assistant just to remind him when each of the boards he serves on is convening: BIDMC, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brandeis University, and any one of the five Harvard-related panels on which he has served, or is now serving.

The revolving door between government service and the private sector in Boston also means colleagues at places like BIDMC are likely to have professional and personal ties that predate their current employment. That six degrees of separation can be beneficial, greasing the wheels to get things done. But that insularity also has a cost. In a city teeming with overcredentialed and underemployed lawyers, could BIDMC’s  board of directors really find no one else to conduct its internal investigation of Levy than Robert Sherman, an attorney who sits on its own board of trustees?

For its part, MIT has not even bothered to comment on Levy’s unorthodox approach to academic mentoring, and he continues to sit on that university’s board of trustees. It is a perch that proved especially useful last year, when the rumors finally forced him to broom Mohamed from her $104,000 sinecure at Beth Israel’s Needham campus. She is now program administrator at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, a job she got, Levy has acknowledged, after he “made a call.” (Says MIT spokesperson Patti Richards, “MIT does not comment on personnel hiring issues.”)

Maybe MIT president Susan Hockfield does not cringe at the acknowledgments page of Mohamed’s 2001 master’s thesis in city planning that thanks MIT — “my home, and the place of extraordinary encounters” — as well as “Paul Levy, my advisor, role model, and friend, for teaching me some of my most valuable lessons, for your friendship and inspiration, for listening, and for teaching me to follow my heart.”

Hockfield should. Levy was a part-time adjunct when he took Mohamed under his wing. The relationship was apparently so inspiring that in 2006 the university featured them as role models at a panel discussion about mentoring. In January 2007 an issue of MIT’s Technology Review included an account of the pair’s relationship titled the “New Face of Mentoring”: “After seeking classmates’ advice and attending a few of Levy’s classes, [Mohamed] introduced herself and asked him to advise her. He became a friend as well as a powerful role model and ultimately recruited her to work at Beth Israel. Mohamed’s initiative paid off, said Levy, who added that if you’re seeking a mentor, you should pay attention to subtle hints that people are interested in nurturing you professionally.”

But are close personal friendships how teachers at MIT mentor their students? If not, why has there been no review of fraternization policies and no censure of Levy, a guy who has, at the very least, ensured that the success of one talented female MIT graduate will be credited as much to his interventions as to her competence? Why is he still a trustee? (MIT’s Richards would only say that his five-year term ends on June 30, 2011.) As the report from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office on BIDMC’s handling of the Levy affair noted, “the predictable and unfortunate result of combining personal and professional relationships within a workplace environment means decisions made regarding the employee’s hiring, transfer, pay, bonuses, and performance reviews will always be subject to the perception they may have been influenced as much by the personal relationship with Levy as by her own professional performance.” In other words, her reputation suffers as much as his.

THE TWO WOMEN AT BIDMC who should have stopped Levy years ago — senior vice president of human resources Lisa Zankman and senior vice president and general counsel Patricia McGovern — go back decades with him. Levy was executive director of the MWRA when Zankman was that agency’s human resources director and McGovern was chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee in the Massachusetts Senate. Like the board members who did nothing after Levy ignored their repeated pleas to end his ties to Mohamed, Zankman and McGovern gave their pal a pass even though his relationship with Mohamed was an open, divisive secret in the hospital they are paid to serve. They might say they did not know; they should have. Neither woman wanted to talk about it.
Levy, though, cannot seem to stop talking. Despite being warned to cease using his blog to take shots at rival hospitals, his daily postings are alternately unctuous and self-serving or defensive and slightly paranoid.

After the attorney general’s report criticized the Beth Israel board’s failure to provide “diligent and independent management oversight” of Levy, and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Organization for Women called for his dismissal, he posted an out-of-left-field reminiscence about an award he received five years ago from the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus and the speech he made that night hailing the women who had been “my mentors, advisers, and supporters during a multi-decade career….”

After the Service Employees International Union challenged the board’s support of Levy, he speculated that the SEIU local was targeting a union drive on BIDMC rather than Massachusetts General or Brigham and Women’s Hospital because of the “personal relationship between the former head of the SEIU [Andy Stern] and the chief operating officer” of Partners HealthCare, Thomas P. Glynn. (The two knew each other when Glynn was in the Labor Department under Clinton.)

Get it? Levy’s critics are either feminist harpies or labor agitators sicced on him by rival hospital executives.

Levy can get away with this sort of spin because he has spent decades, and no small amount of effort, cultivating friendships with reporters and editors. When he takes a pay cut to save a janitor’s job, it’s on the front page. When protesters picket a board meeting to demand he be fired, it’s a news brief. Call it the Great Man theory: Larger-than-life figures who go astray in Boston — even those more slick than charismatic — are quickly restored to the fold.

The scrutiny, though, is not over for Levy and his enablers. In 2008 a sex discrimination lawsuit was brought against Levy, Beth Israel, and Dr. Josef E. Fischer, the former head of surgery, by a doctor Levy demoted from the head of anesthesiology; the suit may see trial next year. In her complaint, Dr. Carol Warfield says she repeatedly reported Fischer’s demeaning and sexist treatment of her and that when she asked Levy to intervene, he accused her of “playing the victim” and creating a “culture of whining.”

If only Warfield read Running a Hospital, she would understand Levy’s point of view. After a Columbus Day youth soccer tournament this fall, Levy, a longtime soccer referee, took to his blog to chastise a coach whose players had challenged his calls. “The referee is always right,” Levy lectured, “even if s/he has made a mistake: A player never wins in the long run by dissenting. If children are to be effective players as they grow older, it is best to learn that lesson, too.”