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UC Irvine Hospital Probes for Nepotism

Times Staff Writer

UCI Medical Center says it is investigating whether nepotism rules were violated when it hired three relatives of the hospital’s interim chief executive.

Maureen Zehntner told UC Irvine officials she had a brother, sister and cousin employed at the Orange hospital after The Times reported last week that children of other top medical administrators had been hired there, university spokeswoman Susan Menning said Wednesday.

“The university is currently looking into the hires to confirm they were made in accordance with appropriate policies and procedures,” according to a UCI statement.

The investigation is expected to be completed next week, said another spokeswoman, Simi Singer. She said Zehntner was not available for comment.

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The Times began asking UCI about Zehntner’s relatives this week.

University of California rules permit close relatives to work in the same department when it is “in the best interests of the university” and has been approved by the campus chancellor or the chancellor’s designee. A cousin is not considered a close relative.

Zehntner, a registered nurse, was elevated from second in command at the medical center after the chief executive, Dr. Ralph Cygan, was placed on administrative leave in November, less than a week after problems with the hospital’s liver transplant program became public. Cygan resigned two weeks ago but remains on the faculty. Zehntner came to UCI in 1996.

According to UCI records, Zehntner’s brother, Bruce V. McGraw Jr., earns $54,996 a year as a network development liaison. He started work at the medical center in 1999. McGraw didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone message. A colleague said McGraw’s job included distributing brochures to outside doctors and updating them on new services available at the hospital.

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Zehntner’s sister, Veronica J. Hogue, earns $22,642 as a part-time assistant at the medical school. She started work there in 2001. She declined to comment.

Kimberely Becker, Zehntner’s cousin, also works at the hospital, but no details were available.

“Why UCI doesn’t have a policy against [such hires] is beyond me,” said Kerry Fields, an assistant professor of business law and ethics at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “It saps staff morale and adversely affects recruiting because it sends a clear message that who you know is more important than how you perform.”

Although some large organizations, such as Ford Motor Co., are “built on nepotism,” Fields said, many forbid relatives of senior management to work in the same business unit.

Nepotism has recently become an issue in the University of California system. In November, UC’s second-ranking executive, provost M.R.C. Greenwood, resigned during an investigation into the hiring of her son for a $45,000-a-year internship at UC Merced and her business partner to a post in the UC system.

At UCI, Dr. Kristen Kelley, the daughter of medical school Dean Dr. Thomas Cesario, was hired as an assistant clinical professor of dermatology in 1997. She is now director of the dermatology residency program.

The cardiology division hired the dean’s son, Dr. David Cesario, in 2004. A UCI doctor with the same specialty as Cesario’s son said he was pressured to quit so the hospital could justify hiring the dean’s offspring, who left the job eight months later for a post at UCLA.

Dean Cesario denied that the doctor was forced out to make way for his son and said he played no role in the hiring.

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That same year, Cygan’s daughter was hired as an interpreter and later promoted. A UCI spokesman said nothing was improper with those hires.

The hospital has also bought photographs from a gallery owned by Susan Spiritus, wife of Dr. Eugene Spiritus, the hospital’s chief medical officer. Susan Spiritus said the purchases went through a competitive bidding process and that she didn’t discuss the deal with her husband until after it was completed. But the hospital procurement officer said Dr. Spiritus was among those who recommended buying from his wife’s gallery.

UCI has been dogged by a string of medical controversies since November, when The Times reported that 32 liver transplant patients died while doctors turned down viable donor organs. The program was soon shut down.

Other problems include poor performance in the bone marrow and kidney transplant programs, the hiring of a financial donor’s son to a residency position in the radiology department, turmoil in the anesthesiology department, and faculty criticism of the hospital’s top two cardiologists for not holding a state medical license or U.S. board certification.

The problems follow a 1995 scandal in which fertility doctors stole eggs and embryos from patients and implanted them in other women, and the 1997 discovery that UCI’s donated-cadaver program failed to properly handle human remains.


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