Detroit inspector general accuses health leader of 'abuse' of power

The state’s chief medical executive abused her power while director of the Detroit Health Department by crafting a position for a department employee with no intention of conducting competitive interviews, according to a report released Tuesday by the Detroit Office of the Inspector General.

The report found that at one point, the employee wrote the initial description of the job created in 2018 by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, according to Inspector General Ellen Ha. 

That resulted in wasted city resources as the health department posted the position and scheduled interviews for a role “solely intended” for one employee, Ha's report said. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' chief medical executive, answers a reporter's questions after a November press conference.

The overall process used by the Department of Human Resources also allowed other departments to manipulate the classification system for their own benefits, the report concluded.

In this case, the city's health department designated a given classification for employee Valentina Djelaj not because of her job duties, according to the report, “but because it was the only classification that would accommodate the salary Dr. Khaldun wanted to pay her.”

“The actions taken by Dr. Khaldun are troubling,” the report said. “The evidence shows Dr. Khaldun manipulated the system to create an illusion of fairness in the Health Department’s hiring of a CIO (chief integration officer), when there was none. This is abuse of authority.”

Khaldun ran the department from February 2017 to April 2019, when she was appointed the state’s chief medical executive by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Khaldun said Tuesday her goal for the Detroit health department was to “establish standards for excellence and hire a strong team” to rebuild the department after the city’s bankruptcy and “years of turmoil.”

“I take my role as a public servant very seriously, and integrity is of the utmost importance to me,” Khaldun said in a statement. “I followed the HR processes for Southeast Michigan Health Authority (SEMHA) and the City of Detroit at every step in the hiring process, as was indicated in the OIG report and the evidence that I submitted."

The allegations contained in Ha's report date back to 2017 and were based on interviews and emails exchanged between Khaldun and Djelaj, then the special associate to the director. 

Djelaj no longer is with the Health Department, according to the city. Reached Tuesday night by The Detroit News, Djelaj declined immediate comment but said she would call back later.

Emails and interviews show Khaldun intended to make Djelaj chief integration officer for the department as early as 2017, first within the Southeast Michigan Health Authority and later under the city of Detroit, the auditor general's report said.

Emails sent between September and October 2017 indicate Djelaj prepared a position description and memorandum for Khaldun regarding her potential job and that Khaldun had inquired about salary increases for Djelaj that would correspond to her eventual title change before the position was ever posted. 

Khaldun began referring to Djelaj as CIO and Djelaj began using the title in her email signature at least a month before the CIO position was posted in February 2018, according to the report.

Djelaj later told investigators she didn’t believe the position was created for her. She told investigators in August that she couldn’t recall if she assisted in drafting the CIO position language and “claimed she only became aware of the CIO position through the City of Detroit job posting email.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, then Detroit’s health department director, discusses the launch of a mental health task force in 2018.

More than a week after the interview with investigators, Djelaj revised her statements and said she recalled assisting Khaldun with the CIO posting and “was under the impression that it was going to become her position” while the position was still under SEMHA.

Prior to the chief integration officer posting, in October 2017, the health department's deputy director requested Djelaj's salary increase from $80,000 to $95,000, according to the report. Djelaj told investigators the raise reflected an increased workload within her role as special associate to the director.

Any increases in salary after Djelaj become chief integration officer were not available. The city couldn't provide her final salary late Tuesday night.

The job description created by Djelaj was contained in an email titled “my pd” and changed certain job specifications, including specifications that required a master’s or doctoral degree in “medicine” to "social work” and the required management experience from five years to three years apparently to comply with Djelaj’s experience, Ha's report said. 

Detroit’s Human Resources Department acknowledged the changes “should have been flagged for review by the HR director,” according to the report. The department has implemented new training on changes to minimum qualifications in job postings. 

In an eight-page September response to Ha’s draft report, Khaldun chided the inspector general for not alerting her to the investigation or initial findings earlier. She requested investigators “remove any statements or findings in this report that refer to me, as the health director, abusing my authority or wasting city resources.”

“I at no time told Ms. Djelaj that she was guaranteed a position in the City of Detroit,” Khaldun wrote. “I specifically told her that she would have to competitively compete for the position.”

In November, Khaldun told investigators that the Southeastern Michigan Health Association under which Djelaj initially worked allowed Khaldun to promote and give raises to staff freely. But when Djelaj was transitioned to the Detroit Health Department, the city required the CIO position to be posted and the salary to be within the range specific to the classification, she told investigators. 

The position was necessary to integrate programs to promote efficiency and create a “seamless process” for residents receiving services, Khaldun told investigators.

“Dr. Khaldun further stated that she created the position because it was necessary, not because she wanted a particular person to hold the title,” the report said. 

But the Health Department Deputy Director Tim Lawther said it was a “widely held belief” in the department that the job was intended for Djelaj and that he was “shut out” of the hiring process, according to Ha's report. Another job candidate claimed Khaldun was “checked out” during the interview.

“Mr. Lawther also made clear that he believed the process was not open or ideal, with preferential treatment being given to Ms. Djelaj,” the report said. 

Ha concluded there was no action the Office of the Inspector General could recommend against Khaldun because she is no longer a city employee. 

“However, the OIG takes the position that this type of abuse is highly unacceptable for a City of Detroit hiring official, and would recommend appropriate discipline if Dr. Khaldun was still employed with the City,” the report said. 

Khaldun’s predecessor was Eden Wells, who was accused of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014-15 Flint area Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and lying to a law enforcement officer, but charges were dropped. Wells is currently a civil servant in Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services.