Nguyen Wants CalOptima Public Relations Contract Terminated

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Supervisor Janet Nguyen, angry at a CalOptima public relations contractor she accuses of slander, has demanded an immediate end to his contract.

Nguyen has told the CalOptima board of directors she wants to send a message to the health plan’s contractors and others that “you don’t speak ill of anybody, regardless of who it is, on this board.”

“It is inappropriate to allow any contractor to speak negatively or discredit any member of this board,” she said during the March 23 CalOptima board meeting.

She urged her board colleagues to immediately cancel CalOptima’s contract with Laer Pearce & Associates, which has represented the board since 2008.

The issue has been deferred to the board’s Thursday meeting because Nguyen’s information was secondhand, and board members said before firing the contractor they wanted to find out whether the allegations are true.

“I categorically deny” slandering or speaking ill of Nguyen, Pearce said last week. “I’m definitely happy that I’m having a hearing, and I look forward to explaining it.”

Nguyen said her information came from an unnamed aide to Supervisor Bill Campbell, a Nguyen ally and Board of Supervisors’ alternate to the CalOptima board.

The conversation between Pearce and the aide apparently occurred while Pearce was doing CalOptima work, getting the views of supervisors about the agency and discussing its future.

CalOptima provides Medi-Cal and Medicare coverage for about 400,000 low-income residents, a majority of them children.

At the urging of Nguyen and the Hospital Association of Southern California [HASC], the Board of Supervisors in recent months changed the composition of the CalOptima board to potentially give control to Nguyen and representatives of the medical industry.

The deadline for applying for the new board positions was March 30.

Nguyen told the CalOptima board she was told Pearce “spoke ill of me, the Board of Supervisors’ action that we should not have engaged in the ordinance change and blamed stakeholders that are involved with CalOptima.”

“I’m going to make a motion, and I hope you’re going to join me to send a strong message that no contractors, regardless of who you are, that we would not tolerate spending taxpayers’ money for an individual or a contractor to go and slander any board members on this board or any of our stakeholders while we’re trying to build that relationship,” Nguyen told the CalOptima board. “So I’m going to move to immediately terminate this contract.”

Nguyen didn’t specify what Pearce allegedly said.

Other board members said they wanted to verify that Pearce slandered Nguyen. Nguyen agreed to wait until Thursday to resume the discussion. In the meantime, Pearce’s firm will not be allowed to do any work for CalOptima.

According to CalOptima staff comments during the meeting, Pearce’s firm, which was awarded a no-bid contract initially, works as needed and has been paid $282,000, about $80,000 a year.

The more than 30-year-old firm specializes in Orange County health care, water, wastewater and land development issues, according to its website.

Its prior work for public agencies includes developing a communications plan for the county’s reorganization after the 1994 bankruptcy; work for the county Children & Families Commission, which is chaired by Campbell; and leading public outreach and communications for the county’s El Toro airport environmental impact report.

— TRACY WOOD

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