Health Care

Hospital boss finds money for portrait

The serene smile of the lady in the portrait to be hung at Central Regional Hospital in Butner conveys none of the turmoil in North Carolina's mental health system.

Severe cuts to staffing and patient beds have left thousands of mentally ill people languishing on waiting lists for state hospitals. Cost overruns at the new $120 million mental hospital in Butner even ruled out a large state seal planned for the lobby.

Still, hospital Director Patsy Christian found enough cash to commission a large oil painting of herself, painted by a subordinate and paid for with $250 intended to benefit patients.

Christian ordered the portrait for delivery shortly before the planned November 2007 opening of the hospital, which is intended as the centerpiece of an ambitious reform. But a fire, concerns over design flaws that endanger patient safety and the failure to hire enough qualified staff have kept Central Regional empty.

The painting has passed the time in storage.

This week, it sat in its gilded frame inside a gray cubicle at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, where Central's executive staff have temporary offices.

An Oct. 25 sales receipt from Portraits by J. Lee shows a "unit price" of $4,250.25.

Christian, however, received a 95 percent discount, paying only $250.45 for the "Executive Portrait" and another $321.53 for the gold frame, shipping and handling included, according to the receipt.

The invoice was paid using the money collected from vending machines at John Umstead Hospital in Butner. Christian, 60, oversees Umstead and Dix, which are scheduled to be closed next month. The patients will be moved to Central Regional.

The state budget manual mandates that the dimes, quarters and bills collected from mental patients using the hospital's vending machines go to pay for recreational activities that benefit them, such as field trips: "Expenditures of profits should be as closely associated to the population or program surrounding the vending facilities as possible."

Christian, whose annual salary is $119,759, declined requests for an interview about how her portrait fit that definition. A request for her to pose for a photograph with the painting was also declined through a departmental spokesman.

Calls to the artist J. Lee were not returned. Property records for the address listed on the sales receipt show the Raleigh house is owned by J. Lee Harris.

Harris, 51, is a nurse supervisor at Umstead and a subordinate of Christian's. She also has a side business painting babies, recent graduates and family pets.

Her Web site says her work sells for between $1,000 and $25,000 a canvas. Harris' annual salary from the state is $72,788.

"I hope you like the portrait," Harris wrote in a Nov. 27 e-mail message to her boss. "I made every attempt to represent you in a timeless, warm, professional and commanding way. When I met you in 1990, I knew you were the perfect model. Now I know you are more than the perfect model, but you helped me make an exquisite representation. Love the environment and your pose!"

Then, Harris offers Christian another portrait for her home at a bargain price.

Gifts are forbidden

DHHS forbids officials to accept gifts -- anything of value -- from those they supervise.

Spokesman Brad Deen said Wednesday that Christian did not seek guidance about whether accepting the portrait at a steep discount violated that standard. No one above her in the chain of command, including Secretary Dempsey Benton, had known about the portrait, Deen said.

In a statement attributed to Harris and released by the department, the artist said the painting was a gift to the people of North Carolina and that the payment she received barely covered the cost of materials.

"Her unconventional beauty, her sense of humor and her blinding intelligence are engraved in my mind," Harris said of her boss. "I knew that with my skill and desire, I would create a painting to be enjoyed by many and become engaged with this historic moment."

Though Christian's name is on the receipt for the painting, Deen said the department's in-house lawyer determined Wednesday that no ethical violation occurred because the $4,000 discount was a gift to the state, not the hospital director.

However, that position could run afoul of state laws forbidding a state employee such as Harris from receiving state contracts. Such an act is potentially a criminal misdemeanor, according to the statute.

With morale among workers at the mental hospitals supervised by Christian already low, several employees predicted Wednesday the portrait would make her appear more like Marie Antoinette than Mona Lisa.

"We've had pay cuts, no raises, we're being understaffed to save money, corners are being cut with our safety," said Beverly Moriarty, a nurse at Dix. "Any money that's been diverted away from patients for someone's self-aggrandizement, there's definitely going to be a negative response."

Deen said Wednesday that the painting would still hang at the new hospital. "They're looking for the right spot," he said.

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