PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On March 8, Christopher Feisthamel received an email from a colleague in state government seeking help in navigating an obscure human-resources policy.
“I need to pick your brain about this system,” wrote the colleague, adding that she’d been told Feisthamel is “a guru” on the topic.
The emails reveal Feisthamel, a top executive at Eleanor Slater Hospital, had a clear understanding of little-known policies tucked into the state’s more than 120-page personnel rule book, and how they can be leveraged for both job protection and pay raises.
Feisthamel — whose $226,000 annual salary ranks in the top 10 largest among all state employees outside higher education — first made headlines last month when a Target 12 investigation raised serious questions about his job status and how he dodged multiple efforts to terminate him since last October.
In a series of text messages sent to Target 12, Feisthamel explained that his job is shielded by one of those obscure HR rules, “leave to protect,” a policy that gives some state workers a right to multiple jobs at the same time. And he says the policy is the reason he avoided getting laid off.
“I don’t have much to say on the record other than I had leave to protect and would have bumped Jen White,” Feisthamel wrote in a text message, referring to the hospital’s former interim CEO Jennifer White.
Leave to protect was originally designed to give workers temporary protection to return to their previous jobs in the event they failed to pass a civil service exam required for the new position. But a Target 12 review of the policy shows it has been generously applied and loosely regulated for the past several decades.
Today, more than 1,660 state employees have leave to protect status in Rhode Island, meaning each person can hold claim to as many as three jobs at the same time. If fired from one position, employees can return to their previous gig – hampering state leaders’ ability to get rid of hundreds of employees.
Gary Sasse, who served in the cabinet of former Gov. Donald Carcieri, said the rule was originally supposed to encourage state workers to take a chance on new jobs. He argued “limited leave to protect status probably makes some sense because things may not go as advertised and you’ve dedicated a significant portion of your career to the state service.”
But Sasse criticized how the rule is being applied today.
“It’s abuse of the system,” Sasse told Target 12. “You can’t defend 1,600 people and you can’t defend it for senior executive positions because those senior executive positions have a lot of responsibility, but they’re reasonably compensated.”
As Target 12 previously reported, Feisthamel’s old office in Cranston was emptied last December and given to someone else. His security access at Eleanor Slater also ended around the same time. And emails obtained through an Access to Public Records Act request show Feisthamel sent few messages from his state account during that time, averaging about 1.3 emails per workday throughout March.
The March 8 note was one of 59 emails sent to Feisthamel during that month. A large portion of the emails came from Michelle Place, assistant to then-director Kathryn Power — mostly flagging news stories to Feisthamel detailing the many problems swirling around the hospital system.
“Keeping the COO/CFO of [Eleanor Slater] in the loop on what is going on in your hospital,” Place wrote on March 23.
Eleanor Slater is currently the focus of several reviews, including an investigation by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha into patient care and finances. This week, a national accrediting agency issued a damning report citing five immediate threats to life, showing patients are currently living in a “dangerous environment.”
From January to April, Feisthamel was paid, but he didn’t regularly start showing up for work in-person again until after Target 12 started asking questions about his employment in early April.
Feisthamel has declined all formal interview requests, but he sent a series of text messages after the May investigation – including one that was critical of Target 12’s reporting, although he did not dispute any of its findings.
“I did not appreciate the tenor nor tone of your last story, I did nothing wrong acting as instructed,” he wrote. “I did nothing underhanded as your story implies.”
Feisthamel also claimed he worked for the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services between December and February, and records show his timesheets were signed by Kayleigh Fischer, the executive office’s budget and finance director, from Jan. 1 to Feb. 27. But in a Feb. 5 email to several state employees, Fischer rejected the idea that Feisthamel ever transferred into their department.
“His official transfer to EOHHS was never completed,” Fischer wrote in the email, further directing that he should continue to report to BHDDH.
Since February, Feisthamel claims White directed him to telecommute and he was underutilized.
“I’m used to a fast paced, multi tasked role,” he wrote, arguing White “systematically marginalized me. In [February], she denied me an office and desk phone and you know how many emails she sent me.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones declined a request to be interviewed for this story, though she committed through a spokesperson to sit for an interview to discuss the details once her overall review of the hospital system comes out next week. Jones spokesperson Kerri White did not respond to a request to interview Jennifer White.
When asked if Jones planned to keep Feisthamel employed, Kerri White again pointed to the ongoing review.
“Secretary Jones has been charged with conducting a thorough review of the department and to make recommendations to the governor on issues including, but not limited to, departmental policy, operations, staffing and quality standards of care,” Kerri White said in a statement.
‘Paid his salary for what?’
The state this month confirmed Feisthamel has leave to protect status and that, prior to Feb. 14, his termination would have resulted in him having the option to return to White’s position.
White has since been reclassified, meaning Feisthamel’s termination wouldn’t affect her employment, although it’s not entirely clear when that reclassification was finalized.
On April 5, Power – the former department director who was leading the charge to terminate Feisthamel – resigned from her post due to a family illness. And Feisthamel has since returned to work in person, even testifying before a Senate Oversight Committee hearing this week.
The state’s leave to protect policy isn’t widely known, but Feisthamel is hardly the first employee to use it to his advantage.
In 2017, Target 12 revealed that a top General Assembly employee — Frank Montanaro Jr. — received nearly $50,000 in free tuition three years after leaving his job at Rhode Island College. He argued the benefit was allowable because while he technically worked out of the State House, he received the free tuition because he had leave to protect status at the college.
“I didn’t know if I was going to fit in this position, if it was going to be a job that I would like,” Montanaro said at the time, adding that by the third year, “I knew I was starting to get more comfortable in the position here.”
The policy has also been loosely regulated over the years. In a rule cited by state officials, the policy requires that approval must be “in writing.” When asked for the agreed-upon language, Kerri White initially said the state had no contract with Feisthamel.
When pressed for the written approval, R.I. Department of Administration spokesperson Robert Dulski said there’s no written approval of leave to protect for Feisthamel — or any of the other 1,660 employees with the protective status.
“Given the number of employees who have leave to protect on a prior position (1,666), coupled with the state’s antiquated HR systems, this manual, administrative process of assigning leave to protect status on employees has been automated as much as possible in that HR representatives have been given the authority to approve and renew leave to protect statuses on the personnel administrator’s behalf,” Dulski said. “This process has been in place for over 20 years and is applied equitability to all employees who fall under the cited personnel rule.”
Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, who has been closely scrutinizing patient care and operations at Eleanor Slater, reached out to Secretary Jones following Target 12’s initial report in May to inquire about Feisthamel’s employment. He expects answers to some of his questions to come out in the results of her review next week, he said.
After reviewing Target 12’s latest findings about Feisthamel, including the leave to protect policy, DiPalma said the more important piece of the puzzle to him is figuring out exactly what one of the highest salaried state employees was doing for four months.
“For four months we paid his salary for what?” he said. “Regardless whether leave to protect is permissible here, to me that is a secondary question to – for four months what did we do?”