For 43 years, Pontiac (Mich.) Osteopathic Hospital was run by members of the Whitlow family.
But that dynasty crumbled this fall amid an avalanche of litigation, including four discrimination suits against the hospital and its chief executive officer, Jack Whitlow, 68.
Whitlow resigned as CEO on Oct. 2. He had held the post for 22 years, taking over from his father, who opened the hospital in 1953.
In the past year, Whitlow and the hospital have been the target of three sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuits by longtime employees. The plaintiffs include the hospital's former in-house counsel/risk manager and its former nursing director. A fourth lawsuit alleges race discrimination.
Nepotism has fueled more controversy. According to newspaper accounts, the hospital employed Whitlow's son as an emergency room nurse while he was on a work-release program from the Lapeer County (Mich.) Jail. He was serving a 120-day sentence after pleading no contest in November 1995 to molesting a 12-year-old girl and admitted in court papers that he was addicted to alcohol and marijuana.
The hospital also allowed Whitlow's brother, Francis Whitlow, D.O., to practice medicine at a hospital-run occupational health facility after he admitted in 1989 to overprescribing drugs to patients in Arizona. He relinquished his medical license in Arizona, and Michigan regulators have been attempting to suspend his license.
The charges have drawn adverse attention to the 308-bed hospital, which is a fixture in downtown Pontiac.
Whitlow's resignation came the same day as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the hospital's new $36 million patient tower. In attendance were local dignitaries including Pontiac Mayor Walter Moore, who called Whitlow "a visionary," according to an account in the Oakland Press.
By all accounts, Whitlow is charismatic and outspoken. In 1990, he actively opposed a proposed merger of the American Osteopathic Hospital Association, now the American Osteopathic Healthcare Association, with the American Hospital Association. He told MODERN HEALTHCARE, "If we become part of the AHA, we'll have no power."
But attorneys for the plaintiffs claim Whitlow abused his power at the hospital.
Among the accusations in the lawsuits is that Whitlow called himself a "boob man," made unwelcome advances, displayed a degrading picture on his office wall, purposely passed gas in the direction of female employees and commented on their breasts.
Whitlow's personal secretary, who worked at the hospital for more than 25 years, alleged that after she returned to work following a car crash in which she suffered facial injuries in 1995, Whitlow reportedly said it was a good thing she was left "with all her good parts because if anything happened to her boobs she would not have a job."
Another suit claims that after a patient was sexually assaulted in 1993, Whitlow inquired as to the patient's age and weight and said, "If she's fat and old, why would anybody even bother?" That suit, filed by former Nursing Director Rita Mahon, also alleges weight discrimination.
Former in-house counsel Sharon Rapp, who was employed for 14 years, alleged religious as well as sexual harassment, claiming Whitlow made derogatory comments about Jews and praised Adolf Hitler on a regular basis.
"It's an environment that's tolerated this kind of behavior for so long that perhaps it became numb," said Sue Ellen Eisenberg, who represents Rapp. She said Whitlow "really viewed it as his hospital."
The hospital and Whitlow have denied the allegations and accused at least one of the plaintiffs of attempting to try the case in the media.
At deadline, Whitlow was unavailable for comment.
Attorney Joseph Ritok, who represents the hospital in two of the cases, said it will have "valid responses" to each charge.
"The hospital's position is that these people may have been unhappy employees but there was no sex or religious harassment," he said.
One plaintiff said she was demoted and later discharged. Two said they resigned and a fourth is on medical leave.
The first cases are scheduled for trial early next year.
Meanwhile, the question of the future leadership of the hospital remains unresolved. Patrick Lamberti, the hospital's assistant executive administrator, has been named acting CEO.
Whitlow is still working for the hospital and receiving his salary, Ritok said. The hospital said he has been assigned to "special projects" at ancillary facilities outside the main building.
The hospital was discussing a joint operating agreement with St. Joseph Mercy-Oakland health system in Pontiac, but St. Joseph Mercy suspended talks on Sept. 30. A spokesman for St. Joseph Mercy said the decision to suspend talks was unrelated to the controversies.