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Samuel Downing Under Fire For $4 Million Retirement Package

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SALINAS, Calif. — A state lawmaker has called for an audit of a hospital district that awarded its CEO nearly $4 million in retirement payments in addition to his $150,000 annual pension.

State Assemblyman Luis Alejo said Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System might have prioritized executive benefits over patient care.

"We're interested in finding out through the audit whether the hospital is putting the needs of the community first," said Sasha Horwitz, a spokesman for Alejo, a Democrat who represents Watsonville.

The district has eliminated about 600 positions through layoffs and attrition since January 2010 – a situation noted by Alejo in an April 25 letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which was expected to hear the audit request on May 11.

"We want to find out if these decisions have impacted patient care," Horwitz said.

Samuel Downing retired as CEO last week after more than 25 years as the top administrator in the district that receives about 1 percent of its funding from public sources.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the district approved a series of supplemental retirement payments to Downing totaling $3.9 million.

Adrienne Laurent, a spokeswoman for the hospital district, rejected Alejo's criticism, saying he was relying on allegations made by labor unions. Those unions have been critical of Downing and other hospital executives.

"If Assemblymember Alejo had contacted us directly, we would have been happy to clarify the facts for him," Laurent said in a statement. "We know that (the hospital district) has behaved appropriately, legally and ethically."

Downing was among the best-paid public employees in the state in 2009, when he earned $790,000, according to the state controller.

In an interview with the Times, he said he thought he had earned the retirement package.

"I've stayed here out of my commitment to try to build a great hospital," he said. "I worked for this institution and gave them my heart and soul."

Harry Wardwell, director of the hospital district, said Downing deserved the money for turning what was a small rural hospital into one of the state's top health care systems.

Downing's retirement plan was vetted by an independent firm, Wardwell said.

"Sam was a legacy for Salinas Valley Memorial," Wardwell said. "We were lucky to have had him for that long."

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