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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ken Hodges, Dr. John Bagnato, the Election, and the Georgia Media

The decision of the judge was so stunning that the defendant, Dr. John Bagnato, and his entire defense team did all they could not to burst out laughing in the middle of the court room. Bagnato was charged with theft related to an alleged incident in which the District Attorney claimed he had broken into a home and stolen just over $100. From November of 2004-May of 2005, Dr. Bagnato would be arrested no less than three times in relation to this alleged incident. Finally, in May, the judge ruled that the prosecution couldn't establish that elements of a crime even existed.

This means that even though he was charged three times with theft, the prosecution couldn't even prove that a theft occurred, let alone that he committed. Anyone that has followed the plight of Dr. John Bagnato, of Albany, Georgia, closely can say beyond all reasonable doubt that he never committed this or any other crime. That scene in the court room was the climax of the criminal proceedings against him.

Yet, if you talk to Dr. Bagnato, as I have, he's not shy in saying that these criminal charges were part of an orchestrated retaliatory campaign because he dared to blow the whistle on corruption he found at Phoebe Putney Hospital located in his home town. Furthermore, he's not shy in telling you that along with blaming Phoebe Putney itself, he also lays much of the blame on Ken Hodges.

Hodges is currently running for the Attorney General of the state of Georgia. (his campaign refused repeated requests to speak on or off the record about this) In 2005, he was the district attorney for the district that included Albany, Georgia. He was NOT however the prosecutor in charge of the case against Dr. John Bagnato. By then, he was removed by the state's Attorney General, Thurgood Baker, and replaced with Kelly Burke, a neighboring District Attorney. That's because by the end of 2004, it had grown clear that Hodges was no longer impartial in the matter and was then in no position to prosecute Bagnato.

The whole thing starts two years earlier. That's when Dr. John Bagnato recruited his CPA, Charles Rehberg, to investigate the books of Phoebe Putney hospital. Putney is a non profit hospital which means they pay absolutely no taxes. It also means that they are supposed to provide a sufficient amount of so called charity care. This means the hospital should use the money they save in tax payments to provide care for those that can't afford it. That was the original and current intent of non profit hospitals.

Instead, Rehberg and Bagnato found that Putney was expanding and militant in going after non payments as low as $100. In other words, it was the estimation of Rehberg and Bagnato that Phoebe Putney was a non profit acting like a for profit. Then, Bagnato and Rehberg sent out a series of factoids ANONYMOUSLY to local businesses and politicians detailing their findings. Phoebe Putney was none too happy about all this and they hooked up with Hodges.

Hodges used the threat of a grand jury to subpoena phone and internet records from several area internet and phone companies and eventually figured out that Bagnato and Rehberg were the source of the factoids. The problem was that there was no grand jury. As such, Hodges was using the office of the District Attorney to investigate for a private citizen. This discovery lead Phoebe Putney to charge Bagnato and Rehberg civilly for about $60 million, a charge that was later dropped.

The civil charges were followed by a criminal investigation by Hodges' office. That lead to the charges recounted at the beginning. Of course, by the end of 2004, the series of events just recounted had come to light and Baker had no choice but to remove Hodges as the prosecutor. One thing that Baker didn't do was eliminate the investigation entirely. For this, Bagnato also has no love loss for Baker. He is firm in his belief that there was never any evidence that he stole anything from anyone. In fact, the only evidence there was originated from a Phoebe Putney investigator.

What's truly remarkable about this story is that it's received scant attention in Georgia. Dr. Bagnato believes the truth of this story indicts not only a candidate for Attorney General of Georgia but a candidate for its Governor. Furthermore, these events have been turned into a documentary called Do No Harm. If you live in Georgia, it's very unlikely that you will see this documentary. It's been screened twice in Atlanta and twice more in Albany with the help of watchdog group, Georgia Watch. Beyond that, the local PBS conglomerate has refused to show it on most of its stations. In fact, the film has seen far greater exposure in Chicago, hometown of the filmmaker Rebecca Shanberg, than in Georgia where its set.

Media coverage of both the film and the events surrounding the film have also been scant. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has only mentioned the film and these events in its blog. That means nothing related to this has been printed. In fact, the biggest coverage has been in area blogs. The conservative blog Peach Pundit ran a series of articles earlier in the year, and SWGA Politics ran a series last year. The local Albany, Georgia television station WALB has said little about the case or the movie even though it centers in their hometown. Their main contribution was in slowing down its release when that station put in an injunction against the movie when it used about 45 seconds worth of clips without receiving written authorization. That dispute was eventually resolved last summer and the movie can now be seen with the clips.

Meanwhile, Hodges has referred to Do No Harm as "propaganda" but has said little beyond that. The filmmaker vigorously challenged this characterization. Shanberg says that she presented the facts as they were based on cooperation of those involved. She says that filmmakers reached out to Hodges but neither he nor his campaign would cooperate. Most of these issues have barely been flushed because there has been scant media attention paid to the film and its events.

That's not due to a lack of evidence. Everything I've said is a matter of public disclosure. That's because both Dr. Bagnato and Charles Rehberg are involved in civil suits against all other parties mentioned. In fact, Peach Pundit included all documents related to the case in their series. So, most Georgians have no idea that this story even exists despite the clear implication it has against both a candidate for Attorney General and for Governor.

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