A doctor on the University of California’s Board of Regents has been allowed to keep his seat despite a secret investigation that concluded he violated ethics rules by trying to strike a financially beneficial deal between his eye clinics and UCLA, part of the university system the regents oversee.
Dr. William De La Peña also engaged in discussions about a prominent eye center affiliation involving UCLA even after recusing himself, an investigation found. At the time, he was chairman of the regents’ health services committee.
A March 2015 letter from Daniel Dooley, who was appointed by the UC to oversee the investigation of whistleblower complaints against De La Peña, summarized the findings of an outside investigator hired by UC. Dooley concluded that De La Peña violated the board’s conflict-of-interest rules and that his behavior “clearly constitutes an improper governmental activity.”
Copies of the letter, which was obtained by ProPublica, were sent for possible action to UC President Janet Napolitano and then-Regents Chairman Bruce Varner, but the findings were not made public.
In response, De La Peña resigned from the health committee and gave up its chairmanship on April 2, 2015, “in the best interests of the university.” Yet he remains a member of the overall governing board, eligible to vote on items involving UC medical centers. His term expires in 2018.
Asked why the inquiry’s conclusions – or even its existence – had been kept confidential, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein wrote in an email, “The outcomes of whistleblower investigations are not routinely announced publicly.”
“The investigation was carried out according to UC policy,” she wrote. “His resignation (from the committee) was consistent with what sanction the investigation recommended.”
ProPublica’s efforts to reach De La Peña for comment have been unsuccessful; messages left at his office and home were not returned.
In a May 10, 2015, letter to Napolitano and Varner released by UC, De La Peña strongly disputed the investigation’s findings. He said that it was UCLA itself that first raised the possibility of leasing space from his eye clinics. And he said he spoke to the university’s general counsel, Charles Robinson, and told him, “I did not want to do anything that was wrong or inappropriate under UC’s policies.”
In his letter, De La Peña blamed Dr. David Feinberg, the former chief executive of the UCLA hospital system, for the whistleblower complaint. De La Peña wrote that Feinberg had violated UC rules by signing a deal with Anthem Blue Cross in September 2014 without the regents’ permission. De La Peña also wrote that Feinberg’s allegation against him “was simply a way of ‘getting even’ with me.”
Varner wrote a letter to Napolitano in June 2015, released by UC last week, saying he agreed with De La Peña.
Feinberg, who is now chief executive of Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, declined to comment other than to say in an email, “I wish all the best for the University of California and UCLA.”
The findings on De La Peña come as the University of California is reeling from a string of scandals at its prestigious campuses.
Just last week, Napolitano placed UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi on investigative administrative leave amid “serious questions” about Katehi’s role in campus hiring and pay raises for her relatives, potential improper use of student fees and the hiring of consultants to downgrade online references to a 2011 incident in which a university police officer pepper sprayed students.
UC Berkeley has been buffeted by accusations that it hasn’t taken complaints of sexual harassment seriously, leading to the resignation of the law school dean, a prominent astronomy professor and an men’s basketball assistant coach. The campus’s provost, who was criticized for his handling of harassment complaints, also resigned last month.
And at UCLA, students and faculty have complained about the university’s decision to let a history professor continue teaching despite being accused of sexual harassment.
De La Peña, whose namesake company runs five clinics in Los Angeles and Orange counties, was appointed to the Board of Regents in 2006 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also served on the Board of Regents of the Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences, and as a special delegate to the United Nations, his biography says.
According to Dooley’s March 2015 letter outlining the findings against De La Peña, concerns were raised that De La Peña repeatedly requested that Feinberg find a way to purchase his clinics in a way that wouldn’t require approval from the regents. One way was to sell the clinics to Doheny Eye Institute, a well-known research and treatment center. At the time, Doheny was in talks to affiliate with UCLA after a breakup with the University of Southern California; Doheny subsequently became affiliated with UCLA.
In the letter, Dooley does not explicitly say whether he concluded De La Peña tried to arrange a purchase of his clinics.
“I find that Regent De La Peña continued to engage in discussions regarding the Doheny deal after Regent De La Peña had been recused from participating in the matter,” he wrote. “I also find that Regent De La Peña continued to pursue alternative scenarios by which Regent De La Peña’s clinics could be turned over to UCLA, up to the time of the January 2014 Regents meeting.”
Minutes of the January 2014 meeting twice note that De La Peña had recused himself, but also indicate that he asked questions and engaged in discussions about the affiliation.
Christopher Conway, chief of development and public affairs at Doheny, said he was not familiar with the investigation.
One of the main whistleblower allegations against De La Peña was that he retaliated against Feinberg for refusing to purchase his clinics. Dooley said he accepted the outside investigator’s finding that De La Peña “did not retaliate against Dr. Feinberg and UCLA for Dr. Feinberg’s refusal to involve UCLA in the purchase of Regent De La Peña’s ophthalmology clinics.”
ProPublica requested documents from UC in January involving any findings of impropriety involving members of the Board of Regents, but UC still has not turned over any records in response to that request. Klein said the documents might be available this week.
Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter for ProPublica covering health care and the pharmaceutical industry. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.