PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When state officials decided to lay off Christopher Feisthamel last October, they agreed he could choose between leaving state employment or taking a different job that paid far less.
He didn’t leave. But he didn’t take the other job, either.
A months-long Target 12 investigation has found Feisthamel instead continued to get paid one of the highest salaries in state government, even though records raise significant questions about his job status.
Feisthamel holds the title of “chief of operations and financial management” at the embattled Eleanor Slater Hospital. Yet state leaders have either refused or struggled to explain – and in some cases even obfuscated about – what exactly Feisthamel was doing between January and April, as the problems at the state-run hospital system were roiling state government.
“I thought he left state service,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma, chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee, after reviewing Target 12’s findings. The Middletown Democrat, who’s heading his own inquiry into Eleanor Slater, said while he had periodically discussed the hospital’s finances with Feisthamel in the past, those interactions had ended since last year.
Feisthamel earns $226,000 per year, putting his annual salary in the top 10 largest among all state employees outside higher education. He makes more than Gov. Dan McKee, as well as everyone in the governor’s office and every cabinet member with the exception of the education commissioner.
In December, Feisthamel’s former office in Cranston was emptied and given to someone else. Records reviewed by Target 12 show his security access ended at Eleanor Slater 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 during the entire month of March.
“With the [job] of chief financial officer for the hospital, one would hope it’d be more than 1.3 emails per day,” DiPalma said after reviewing the data, adding that he probably sends about 1.3 emails every five minutes in his day job as an engineer.
While McKee has promised transparency around Eleanor Slater, his point person on the matter – Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones – declined to be interviewed by Target 12 or to directly answer almost any questions regarding Feisthamel’s employment.
Feisthamel also refused a request to be interviewed for this story, according to McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff.
Asked what work responsibilities Feisthamel has been fulfilling between January and April, EOHHS spokesperson Kerri White told Target 12, “We can’t give you a detailed day-to-day description of Mr. Feisthamel’s activities.”
Instead, White sent a hyperlink to an online description of his job.
‘God almighty… can we lay him off??’
When Target 12 first asked questions about Feisthamel’s unfinished termination, state officials refused to answer most of them, claiming the state never gave him a notice of a layoff, either verbally or in writing.
But a Target 12 review of dozens of messages, personnel records and other public documents indicate otherwise. They show Feisthamel successfully avoided losing his job for months, despite multiple efforts to get rid of him.
After Target 12 presented some of its findings to state officials, their answer changed slightly, suggesting the decision not to lay off Feisthamel belonged to Kathryn Power, who until last month was director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. (BHDDH oversees Eleanor Slater.)
“Director Power made a decision not to proceed with the layoff,” White said.
Power did not respond to a request for comment. But the records obtained by Target 12 paint a different picture — they indicate she was a leader in the effort to try and get rid of Feisthamel.
The process began in October when Power sent a letter to the state’s human resources office, providing notice of her intention to lay off multiple employees, including Feisthamel.
Human resources staffers claimed via email that they met with Feisthamel shortly thereafter to inform him he could choose between leaving or taking a new position under Secretary Jones that paid about $100,000 less than his $226,000 salary.
“Chris would like a few days to digest the information and determine the best option for him,” Pamela Moscarelli, the state’s deputy personnel administrator, wrote in a Nov. 5 email to multiple state employees.
“Once we hear back from him, we will let you know next steps,” Moscarelli wrote.
Public records show Feisthamel never took the lower-paying job and Target 12 has confirmed his salary and title never changed.
By February, three months after human resources indicated Feisthamel’s employment status would soon be resolved, new questions began to swirl, as BHDDH administrators started asking what he’d been doing for all that time. On Feb. 5, Health and Human Services budget and finance director Kayleigh Fischer sent an email to several state employees, including Secretary Jones and Director Power, confirming Feisthamel never actually transferred into EOHHS.
“In view of this assessment and the fact that his official transfer to EOHHS was never completed, [Feisthamel] should be instructed to return to BHDDH effective Monday 2/8/2021 and report to his previous supervisor,” Fischer wrote. She did not reference what he had been doing from Nov. 5 to Feb. 5.
Less than an hour later, Power sent a frustrated email to Jennifer White, who was then the interim CEO of Eleanor Slater.
“God almighty… can we lay him off??” Power wrote.
In a separate email, she added that she felt like human resources and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services had manipulated the state’s employment system “so that no one would have to take the responsibility that the Secretary had indicated she would do.”
Power concluded: “We have been ‘gamed.’”
‘It raises red flags’
Later that same day, Power received authorization to lay off Feisthamel, which came in a letter directly from R.I. Department of Administration executive director of human resources Kyle Adamonis.
“The purpose of this letter is to advise you that your request to effectuate the layoff of Christopher Feisthamel …is approved,” Adamonis wrote in a confidential memo obtained by Target 12.
The letter carbon-copied White, former DOA director Brett Smiley and Moscarelli, among several others.
“Please proceed with the formal notification to Mr. Feisthamel,” Adamonis added.
Once again, it didn’t happen – and Feisthamel continues to work at Eleanor Slater today.
Power has since resigned due to a family illness and McKee has appointed Secretary Jones to assume direct power over the hospital and BHDDH. (Jones was already overseeing both, since BHDDH falls under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.)
Target 12 made its first inquiry about Feisthamel to the state on Friday, April 2. The following Monday, he returned to work in person, and has been showing up regularly ever since, according to several interviews with multiple state employees.
DiPalma said the chain of events “raises red flags,” adding that he would be following up with Jones about the timing.
“Why then?” he asked. “What happened in the interim period? And I’ll say, the whole swirl of what’s happening with Eleanor Slater – we don’t need another thing happening in regards to the situation there.”
The state-run hospital system’s problems include ongoing issues with federal Medicaid billing, a deteriorated relationship between union groups and administrators and neglected maintenance of facilities. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha has launched an investigation into the hospital, examining both patient care and its finances.
Separately, DiPalma has filed a public-records complaint against Jones with Neronha’s office for legal documents that could shed light on whether the hospital had been improperly billing the federal government for years.
An email obtained by Target 12 shows Feisthamel requested on April 14 that his security access be reinstated at Eleanor Slater, and he’s mostly been working out of the facility’s Zambarano unit in Burrillville ever since.
When asked for confirmation that Feisthamel’s security access had been deactivated in December and reactivated in April, Jones’s office insisted it was a simple mistake.
“Mr. Feisthamel’s key fob was deactivated in error,” White said.