Health Care

Portrait won't grace hospital

Patsy Christian's portrait won't hang in the state's newest mental hospital after all.

Secretary Dempsey Benton of the state Department of Health and Human Services requested Thursday that the SBI investigate the hospital director's commissioning of an oil painting of herself to hang at Central Regional Hospital in Butner.

Further, Benton said the state money spent on the portrait, which came from vending machine receipts meant to pay for field trips and other recreation for mental patients, will be recovered. But Benton did not say whether Christian would be asked to make the reimbursement.

The painting will never go to the new hospital, where Christian is still to be the director.

"This was not a department-initiated action," Benton said in a media release. "There will be no state expenditure of funds for this painting, and I have directed that any funds thus far expended be reimbursed immediately to the state."

The SBI will examine the events surrounding the commission and purchase of the portrait to assure that no state laws have been violated, according to the release.

The secretary's order came hours after the publication of a story about the painting in The News & Observer.

The N&O reported that the portrait and its gilded frame, which cost a combined $571.98, was painted on contract by a state employee who is a subordinate to Christian and provided to the state at a steep discount of its proclaimed value.

Christian has declined to comment.

Public condemnation of the portrait deal was swift. More than 100 e-mails and online posts about the issue were sent to the newspaper and so many calls were received that the voice mailbox for the reporter who wrote the story was filled.

Some of those who called were employees at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh and John Umstead Hospital in Butner, two state mental facilities that Christian supervises. Both are to be closed by July 1, when Central Regional is to open.

At a rally of state mental health workers in Raleigh on Thursday night, Christian was a popular foil. One upset employee from a psychiatric ward for adolescents recounted how co-workers pitched in to buy a cake for a distraught child on her birthday after being told by managers no funds were available for patient activities.

One Dix employee held up a homemade sign with Christian's portrait facing that of Marie Antoinette. "Let Them Eat Cake," it read.

The portrait now under scrutiny is not the first time state money has been spent to celebrate Christian.

A photograph, estimated to cost about $500, hangs at Umstead, along with other portraits of former directors. A conference room in the executive building at the hospital was also renamed for Christian in 2006 and a plaque was erected.

Not a state asset

She is not the first director of a state mental hospital to get in trouble over questionable spending.

Seth Hunt, who was demoted in December as the director of Broughton Hospital in Morganton, used state funds to buy a surplus military truck used for off-road excursions. He also spent lavishly from the maintenance funds to remodel his office.

After federal regulators sanctioned the hospital and the disclosure that Hunt failed to report four patient deaths to the proper authorities, Benton ordered that Hunt be reassigned to a new job as special assistant to the director of a nearby home for the developmentally disabled.

It is still not clear exactly what his precise duties in that position are, but Hunt is paid about $100,000 a year.

The release issued by the secretary Thursday did not say what the final fate of Christian's portrait would be. But the secretary made abundantly clear it will never hang in the hospital its smiling subject commissioned it to adorn.

"This portrait will not be a state asset," the secretary said.

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