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Coastal Horizons CEO: Olson-Boseman offered $50 million in hospital sale funds in exchange for silence

Coastal Horizons CEO Margaret Weller-Stargell discussing the events of July, 2020.
Benjamin Schachtman / Michael Praats
Coastal Horizons CEO Margaret Weller-Stargell discussing the events of July, 2020.

In July 2020, Commissioner Julia Olson Boseman and then-commissioner Pat Kusek allegedly offered Coastal Horizon CEO Margaret Weller-Stargell $50 million from the hospital sale — which had not yet been voted on — if they would silence their criticisms of The Healing Place, the county’s planned peer-led recovery facility. New Hanover County says they were never made aware of any such offer, and it was never discussed by county staff.

Current and former officials from Coastal Horizons said they were approached in July of 2020 by New Hanover County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman with a quid-pro-quo: $50 million in funding to silence criticism about The Healing Place, the county’s planned recovery center.

At the time, it was becoming clear that Coastal Horizons was no longer being considered as the operator of The Healing Place — a decision made by Trillium, the governmental agency that controls state and federal funding for mental health for a 26-county region, including New Hanover County. While Trillium had made its choice internally, the county had not yet voted to formalize the agreement.

Coastal Horizons had voiced its concerns about this choice for two main reasons. First, New Hanover County and Trillium had represented to the public that Coastal Horizons was their choice to operate The Healing Place. In particular, Coastal Horizons’ role was used to help convince Wilmington’s City Council to approve the Special Use Permit needed to build The Healing Place. The SUP faced significant opposition, especially from neighbors concerned with security, or a lack thereof.

“During that time, there was a lot of opposition to this facility going on Medical Center Drive, and largely because of the unknown in terms of being a peer-run abstinence-based model facility,” President and CEO of Coastal Horizons Margaret Weller-Stargell said.

Following the opposition from neighbors, Weller-Stargell said the county asked her, and Coastal Horizons to help ease some of those concerns, and help get the permit approved.

“We were positioned there to state that we would be the intended operator … even at our office park here, we're in very close proximity to a school and take great measures to make sure that neighboring entities are secure and safe from any issues that we might have with the clients and patients that we serve,” Weller-Stargell told WECT and WHQR.

A second concern was the lack of medication-assisted treatment for addiction, or MAT. Coastal Horizons offered several MAT programs, considered by most to be ‘gold standard’ of addiction care — but Trilium’s decision to go with an operator that provided only abstinence-based treatment meant MAT would not be available at The Healing Place.

“To exclude MAT, medication-assisted treatment, was going to be very short-sighted on anyone's part and building a treatment facility here,” Weller-Stargell told WECT and WHQR.

Weller-Stargell’s criticism on both these points led to two meetings. The first, on July 1, 2020, was attended by Weller-Stargell, Olson-Boseman, and then-commissioner Patricia Kusek. During this meeting, Weller-Stargell said Olson-Boseman offered her $50 million from the sale of the hospital. The sale wouldn’t be put up for a final vote until October of that year, but a framework for the proceeds had been established, including a $50 million fund for mental health — that’s the money Olson-Boseman offered, according to Weller-Stargell.

When asked for a comment on the allegations, a county spokesperson said, “[County Manager Chris [Coudriet] is not aware of any promise that was made to Coastal Horizons and setting aside money from the hospital sale specifically for them was never discussed by staff.”

Weller-Stargell said she was shocked, and asked for a second meeting, this time with a witness, Andrew ‘Andy’ Jones, who was then the chair of the Coastal Horizons board. During this second meeting, on July 6, 2020, Olson-Boseman repeated her offer.

Even joined by Kusek, Olson-Boseman was not in a position to direct funding – let alone from the hospital sale which was, at least in theory, still an open question. But according to Weller-Stargell, Olson-Boseman made a comment that suggested she had other support.

“What she said to me is, you should take this money, Margaret. It was followed up with you can structure it so it's in perpetuity, and Coastal Horizons will be taken care of. And that way we can get the boys off our back,” she said.

Although she couldn’t say with certainty who ‘the boys’ Olson-Boseman was referring to were, other commissioners who supported the abstinence-only model of The Healing Place included Woody White and Rob Zapple — along with County Manager Chris Coudriet.

It’s not just Weller-Stargell who heard the offer, Jones confirmed he was at the meeting, and that Olson-Boseman offered the quid-pro-quo.

“It was shocking to us. It was shocking to me. I don't want to put words in Margaret's mouth. We took – we reported that conversation back to the Coastal Horizons executive committee, and I think the record would indicate we did not change our position on our objection to The Healing Place serving as the operator. Our values were not – and I imagine Margaret would say the organization's values are not for sale. So we didn't take her up on that offer,” he said.

Weller-Stargell did not change her stance on The Healing Place but she did not publicly discuss the July, 2020 meetings until last week, after learning that, due in part to changes in federal guidelines, The Healing Place now would allow some forms of MAT — a major reason Coastal Horizons was pushed out of the project. In a letter to New Hanover County Chris Coudriet, Weller-Stargell detailed her concerns and included a description of Olson-Boseman’s quid-pro-quo offer.

It was an offer that Weller-Stargell says she didn’t even consider.

“At no time did we say or agree that we would take this money in exchange because it would be unethical,” she said.

Olson-Boseman’s response

Kusek did not respond to requests for comment from WECT and WHQR, but Olson-Boseman responded in an email, calling Weller-Stargell a liar. In an email to WHQR, she wrote, “Margaret’s only concern is money. She’s an embarrassment to the recovery community.”

Weller-Stargell says that statement simply doesn’t hold up.

“First, I would say without hesitation, you should consider the source …I dare say that there is not a single person that I work with, whether it's staff or board that would say I put money first, I always put the best interest of Coastal Horizons and those we serve first. That's why we've been here for 52 years. So if Commissioner Olson-Boseman wants to say that it's about money for me, if it had been, why did I not accept that $50 million,” Weller-Stargell said.

Coastal Horizons’ role in getting The Healing Place approved

By 2018, New Hanover County and Trillium had been in talks for several years about the need for a recovery center. A deal emerged where Trillium would donate nearly nine acres for the facility — originally conceived as a 100-bed men’s facility — and the county would use its annual contribution to Trillium to help fund the $24 million project.

The Healing Place project took its name from The Healing Place abstinence-based peer recovery center in Louisville, Kentucky. The plan was to ‘replicate’ the model in New Hanover County.

A major hurdle was the location which, due to Wilmington’s land-use regulations, would require a special use permit. Starting in late 2018, New Hanover County applied for the permit but faced stiff opposition from neighboring businesses, eventually including a lawsuit filed by Delaney Radiology and Lower Cape Fear Hospice. Major concerns included the lack of security and safety concerns based on the history of police calls at a Healing Place ‘sister location’ called Healing Transitions, in Raleigh.

Wilmington City Council continued the permit hearing repeatedly throughout the late summer and fall of 2018 and, by the time of the final vote on February 5, 2019, council had heard at least four hours of testimony and information — including presenting Coastal Horizons as the planned operator of The Healing Place.

Trillium Executive Vice President Cindy Ehlers again told council that Coastal Horizons would operate the facility. While it would be a new model for Coastal Horizons, Elhers said "I have absolutely no doubt that they have the capacity to deliver on this." She added that negotiations would go forward with Coastal Horizons as soon as the SUP was approved by Wilmington and that the next steps would be Coastal Horizons hiring a facility director, adding that "Coastal Horizons will be on the check” - in response to a question from City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark about who would be in charge of the facility administration. [You can find Ehlers’ comment around the 1:35:00 markon this video.]

Ehlers also told the county that Coastal Horizons staff would visit Lousiville, Kentucky, to learn more about The Healing Place model — a trip Weller-Stargell confirmed took place.

Wilmington approved the SUP and the project went ahead. But a little over a year later, internal conversation at Trillium indicated things were going in a different direction and Coastal Horizons would be dropped as the operator of The Healing Place in New Hanover County. Trillium had instead decided to go with The Healing Place of Kentucky – not just the model, but the actual Louisville company to run the New Hanover facility.

“We did go to Louisville, Kentucky … three of us from Coastal Horizons, and it was not long after that visit, that it was determined that Coastal Horizons would not be the operator, that The Healing Place in Louisville was going to become the operator,” Weller-Stargell said.

On June 30, 2020, the county received a letter from then-Trillium CEO Leza Wainwright, who retired this February, essentially threatening to revoke the land donation for the facility if the county voted against Trillium’s decision. Trillium avoided naming Coastal Horizons, but made it clear the county should not move forward with them.

“For nearly five years Trillium and New Hanover County have specifically discussed a replication of The Healing Place model. We are aware that some members of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners have recently indicated that a local New Hanover County provider operate the facility. Trillium is absolutely not disparaging the good work done by said provider, but that provider has no experience operating a social recovery model like The Healing Place. Nor, to my knowledge, have they been given permission to replicate The Healing Place model,” Wainright wrote, adding, “Trillium has selected The Healing Place of Louisville, KY to replicate their model in the facility, the construction of which we are ultimately funding, on land we previously owned. If the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners were to try to overrule the decision of operator made by Trillium, it is the view of Trillium Health Resources Governing Board that such action could trigger the reversion clause with the land transfer and abrogate the Agreement between the parties.”

One week later, Olson-Boseman and Kusek met with Weller-Stargell and then again with Andy Jones present. Coastal Horizons didn’t take the deal — and didn’t silence their criticisms.

‘Bait and switch’

The next month, county commissioners voted 4-1 to approve Trillium’s choice to drop Coastal Horizons.

Only Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr. voted against the move, calling it a “bait and switch” and accusing Trillium of “pimping or prostituting” the good public reputation of Coastal Horizons to secure the permit to move the project forward.

Reached for comment, Barfield said he hadn’t changed his opinion on The Healing Place, but that he had not been aware of any efforts by Olson-Boseman or Kusek to buy Coastal Horizons’ compliance with Trillium’s choice of operator.

In her letter to Coudriet, Weller-Stargell summed up the process this way:

“What was done to Coastal Horizons was absolutely and without question, unconscionable. But putting my thoughts of what was done to Coastal Horizons aside for a moment, it is abundantly clear now the City Council, neighboring entities, and the community at large were all betrayed in this process.”

Disclosure notice: Margaret Weller-Stargell is the sister of WECT anchor Frances Weller. Fran Weller had no part in the reporting, writing, or editorial decisions about this story.

Editor's note: This report has been updated to clarify that the county had no role in or knowledge of any alleged actions by Chairwoman Olson-Boseman.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.