A film placed —for the moment — out of harm’s way

Updated at 10 a.m. Monday: Links to several court documents added.

Georgia is on the verge of its very own Michael Moore moment. The question is whether that moment will be allowed to happen.

In September 2003, fax machines owned by Albany’s business and political elite began spitting out a series of anonymous newsletters that detailed the inner workings of the nonprofit Phoebe Putney Health System — southwest Georgia’s largest hospital group.

Based on publicly available documents, the “Phoebe Factoids” described the hospital system’s generous executive salary structure, extensive political and business connections, and its financial holdings, which included a Cayman Islands account.

Two locals, accountant Charles Rehberg and surgeon John Bagnato, ultimately copped to the faxes. The pair said they wanted to shed light on a hospital system that wasn’t fulfilling its charitable obligations as a tax-exempt entity.

Ex-FBI agents were sent to confront Rehberg. Phoebe Putney filed a civil suit against both whistle-blowers, alleging defamation, fraud and racketeering. Then the fax-senders were indicted and booked on criminal charges of harassment, aggravated assault and burglary.

Two years into their ordeal, a film crew from Chicago began following Rehberg and Bagnato, who by then had passed their information on to famed Mississippi litigator Richard Scruggs. The Albany Two became the catalyst for a series of lawsuits filed against 50 hospital systems across the country.

The 55-minute documentary “Do No Harm” premiered this May at an Arkansas film festival. Screenings in Chicago and Washington D.C. have also occurred.

The film could have significant political impact in Georgia.

Thirty-five minutes into its story, “Do No Harm” uses video from WALB-TV, Albany’s NBC affiliate, to introduce Ken Hodges, then the district attorney for Dougherty County.

Hodges is now a formidable Democratic candidate for attorney general — the former chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

But in 2004, Hodges was a bloodhound on the scent of the fax-senders. His office used grand jury subpoenas to obtain phone records that led back to Rehberg and Bagnato.

The district attorney passed the information to Phoebe Putney, permitting the hospital system to file its civil suit.

“Yes, I did tell Phoebe Putney who was sending the faxes, just as I would tell any victim who the perpetrator of a crime was,” Hodges said in a phone interview last week. “It would be immoral for me not to.”

But after his role was publicized, Hodges recused himself from the criminal prosecution of the fax-senders. Hodges is now a member of the Baudino Law Group in Atlanta, which does a portion of Phoebe Putney’s legal work.

Hodges said he has seen parts of “Do No Harm.”

“I would hate to call it a documentary. I would call it a propaganda piece,” he said. “… It does not accurately portray the subject matter it intends to cover.”

Hodges said it will only take a brief talk with voters to convince them that he acted properly. A statewide campaign is one likely venue for that conversation. A courtroom remains a possibility.

Criminal charges were ultimately dropped against the fax-senders, as was the Phoebe Putney civil suit. A countersuit against the hospital system — false imprisonment was one of the allegations by the whistle-blowers — was settled out of court.

The only stray legal thread is a federal lawsuit Rehberg filed against Hodges and others in which the Albany accountant claims Hodges went after him as “a political favor” to Phoebe Putney.

A U.S. district judge has refused Hodges’ argument that his public office gave him immunity. The ruling is on appeal.

Hodges is being represented by Attorney General Thurbert Baker, whose decision to run for governor led to the open seat that Hodges is now pursuing.

More shoes have dropped in the past few days.

“Do No Harm” was to be shown for the first time in Atlanta last week. But the screening was shut down Thursday when film director/producer Rebecca Schanberg received a cease-and-desist letter from Raycom Media of Montgomery, which owns WALB-TV.

The documentary “has a lot of our news stories and reporters’ stories all through the thing, and [they] never had received a release to use any of that,” said Jim Wilcox, WALB’s general manager.

Sensitive to talk that might arise, Wilcox volunteered that Phoebe Putney has not spent any advertising dollars with the TV station “for years now.” Schanberg accepts that.

“We hope to resolve it amicably,” she said.

There’s more. On Friday, Georgia Watch, the group that was to sponsor the film screening, was also hit with a cease-and-desist letter.

This one was from Phoebe Putney, which objected to the use of the word “corruption” by Georgia Watch when the group promoted “Do No Harm” on its Web site.

Phoebe Putney has never done anything illegal or unethical, hospital attorney Lin Wood wrote in the cease-and-desist letter to Georgia Watch. “Furthermore, your organization is well aware of the unreliable and biased sources relied upon in connection with the so-called documentary,” he wrote.

Wood has demanded a retraction by 5 p.m. Monday. “Govern yourself accordingly,” he wrote.

For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.

21 comments Add your comment

SWGAPolitics.com

July 12th, 2009
6:29 pm

Tom at SWGAPolitics.com has been covering Hodges pretty extensively. You may want to go there and type in Hodges’ name in the search bar…

Jack Smith

July 12th, 2009
7:03 pm

Jim, are you aware that both Evelyn Wilcox (wife of the Jim Wilcox in your article) as well as numerous Phoebe executives are listed as Hodges campaign contributors? The WALB action may not be as “arms length” as it appears.

Sam Dudack

July 12th, 2009
7:34 pm

Jim, if you interview Ken Hodges about “Do No Harm,” please ask him specifically what part of his actions as described in the movie are inaccurate? I suspect you will not receive either a truthful or coherent reply.

You quote Ken Hodges as describing Dr. Bagnato and Rehberg as “perpetrators of a crime,” but certainly Hodges is aware that the charges brought by his own office in this matter were thrown out by Superior Court Judge Harry Jay Altman in May, 2006 as the court found no discernible crime had been committed. This file is available in the Dougherty County Superior Court Clerk’s office and is of public record.

If Mr. Hodges intends to hold the highest law enforcement office in the State of Georgia, he should at least be able to tell the truth about the most notable case his office handled, rather than arrogantly persist in claiming Rehberg and Dr. Bagnato are criminals, a claim he knows to be false.

[...] Jim Galloway has the story. Here’s a bit of it but you really need to read the whole thing. The 55-minute documentary “Do No Harm” premiered this May at an Arkansas film festival. Screenings in Chicago and Washington D.C. have also occurred. [...]

Will Jones - Atlanta

July 12th, 2009
11:23 pm

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, candidate for Attorney General, may be the only person recently affiliated with the “Republican” party worthy of Georgians’ votes, this time around.

Facinating Scandal

July 13th, 2009
12:18 am

I am surprised this was kept quiet for so long. It is as if Michael Nifong was running for A.G. Does anyone have a link to the actual lawsuit filed by Rehberg against Hodges?

SWGAPolitics.com

July 13th, 2009
4:56 am

FS:

SWGAPolitics.com has all the juicy details – including comments from at least one of the parties in the suit…

Robert

July 13th, 2009
9:07 am

If we give the hospital system the benefit of the doubt that they’ve done nothing illegal or unethical, how does it explain the Cayman Islands account?

Tom

July 13th, 2009
10:36 am

SWGA Politics has been covering the whole shebang for some time now, and we’ll continue. More facts about this will be posted at 12:00, so stop on by and read up.

Jim Galloway

July 13th, 2009
10:40 am

Ask and ye shall receive. Three new documents have been linked above: Hodges’ announcement of his recusal, the orginal wrongful prosecution complaint by Charles Rehberg, and the U.S. District judge’s denial of a motition to dismiss on the grounds of prosecutorial immunity.

Lewis

July 13th, 2009
11:27 am

Kudos to Bagnato and Rehberg; whistleblowers who expose information that “public” groups, companies, and agencies want kept secret are doing a public service.

Silence DoGood

July 13th, 2009
1:59 pm

Fascinating Scandal, this hasn’t been kept quiet. You in the northern part of the state are just becoming aware of the sleeping giant that has lumbered in the pages of the Albany Herald and on WALB for the last five years. In fact, everything you are reading here was published and aired their first. It’s not new. Just new to you.

Mike Moss

July 13th, 2009
6:05 pm

Jim, please ask Hodges how he came up with the burglary and aggravated assault charge against Rehberg, since the links you posted indicate Rehberg had never been to the alleged victim’s residence and never came near the man?

If the charges weren’t so serious, this would actually be funny. And Hodges wants to be Attorney General?

travelindem

July 13th, 2009
7:41 pm

On another note, Hodges’ wife was a reporter for WALB. Additionally, phobe gave money in the last quarter to Hodges. Hmmmmm…..

“Hodges said it will only take a brief talk with voters to convince them that he acted properly. A statewide campaign is one likely venue for that conversation.”

How exactly did he act properly?

This is just the cherry on top of the sleeze sundae that is Ken Hodges. He should do the democratic party a favor and save himself, his family, and the party the embarassment that is his candidacy.

[...] of the nonprofit Phoebe Putney Health System — southwest Georgia’s largest hospital group…more [...]

Lucille

July 14th, 2009
10:40 am

On the money in the Cayman Islands…..every hospital does this….it’s for malpractice and liability insurance….the rates in the states are astronomical…thanks to the likes of ambulance chasing lawyers like convicted Dick Scruggs.

ISawWhatYouDid

July 14th, 2009
4:52 pm

Travelindem: Actually, Mrs. Hodges works for Phoebe Putney now. How ’bout them apples? Rehberg and Bagnato deserve a medal for sticking their necks out for the community. Instead, they get their lives turned upside down.

[...] This summer, the local unveiling of indie documentary on the experiences of two whistleblowers in Albany, Ga., who tried to draw attention to the finances of non-profit Phoebe Putney Health System, was interrupted by legal wranglings. [...]

[...] the filmmakers didn’t have permission to use newscast footage. The AJC’s Jim Galloway wrote a great piece at the time that offered more details about that dispute — as well as the potential [...]

Rita Ellis

October 14th, 2009
3:33 am

Mr. Galloway: As a recipient of Ken Hodges wrath who has witnessed first hand his ability to maintain his ‘Teflon’ status, I have much to say regarding Mr. Hodges run for AG of the Great State of Georgia.. Do No Harm provides a glimpse into what Mr. Hodges is really like. There is MUCH, MUCH more that truly reflects this former prosecutor and his cronies. To start, I have personal knowledge of his covering up of sexual abuse cases in the Dougherty County School System and his complicity in allowing a private prosecution to take place in the Rehberg/Bagnato case. Georgia BEWARE. Ken Hodges will destroy this state so that he can maintain it for his cronies. Do NOT vote for this man. EVER…
Rita Ellis

Hodges for AG

March 6th, 2010
11:09 am

Ken Hodges is the BEST MAN FOR THE JOB!

I grew up in South Georgia, still live in South Georgia, and South Georgia is a better place b/c he served as our DA!!

He has my vote and always will! And yes, I do know him on a personal level – EVEN MORE the reason he has my vote!