PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones has asked human resources to review how often an employee with one of the highest salaries in state government has worked over the past year.
Responding to reporters’ questions on the topic for the first time in two months, Jones said Tuesday the state’s HR agency is looking into the work history of Christopher Feisthamel, a top executive at the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital.
“I will give you a direct answer,” Jones said. “I have referred this matter to human resources to conduct a review in order to give us those answers and not from my vantage points or anyone else’s.”
Feisthamel, whose $226,000 annual salary ranks in the top 10 largest among all state employees outside higher education, first made headlines in May when a Target 12 investigation raised serious questions about his job status and how he dodged multiple efforts to terminate him since last October.
During that time, his office was cleared out, his security access to Eleanor Slater ended and documents obtained through a records request show he sent few daily emails between December and April. He only started regularly showing up for work again in-person after Target 12 started asking about his employment in April.
Feisthamel, who claims he was protected by an obscure human-resources policy during that time, told Target 12 last month he was reporting directly to Jones’s department during January and February. And public records show his timesheets were signed by the secretary’s former director of finance and budget.
Yet Jones still struggled to explain what he was doing, even inside her own department.
“At the time, my director of finance and budget was like, ‘Sure, we’ll try to find something if he doesn’t have enough to do,’” Jones said. “And she did attempt to do that. But we did not need his assistance.”
In records obtained by Target 12, Jones’s director of finance and budget Kayleigh Fischer explained in a Feb. 5 email they were “not willing to take him on,” telling several state officials Feisthamel never even officially transferred to their department.
“His official transfer to EOHHS was never completed,” Fischer wrote in the email, further directing that he should continue to report to the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.
Jones is carbon copied on the email.
The secretary’s more cautious handling of Feisthamel’s employment comes against the backdrop of an ongoing leadership shakeup at the hospital. Earlier this week, the Gov. Dan McKee administration announced the hospital’s former interim CEO, Jennifer White, was placed on administrative leave with pay. Chief Medical Officer Brian Daly said he believed the move was made for “reasons related to intimidation and retaliation,” and he submitted his resignation as a result.
Both White and Daly had been raising concerns about improper billing practices at the hospital for months. During that time, multiple union groups called for White and Daly’s removal, claiming they among others had created a hostile workplace. Feisthamel has never publicly criticized the hospital’s billing issues and unions have never called for his resignation.
The state’s human resources office, a division of the R.I. Department of Administration, confirmed Friday a formal request to review Feisthamel’s employment was submitted on June 25 — more than a month after questions about his job status were first made public.
DOA spokesperson Derek Gomes declined to respond to questions about what the review would entail and how long it would last. The results will not be made public.
“The Department of Administration does not comment on or disclose the results of confidential personnel matters,” Gomes said.
On Tuesday, Jones seemed to agree there was some issue with Feisthamel’s work status for at least four months, but she said the HR review was necessary to ensure the problems didn’t extend longer.
“I don’t know the specific four months because I’ve gotten different stories about which four months,” she said. “The worst thing to do is to look at four months that one person says, and if you looked broader, you would have found something different.”