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SEVEN MONTHS AFTER abruptly ousting its general counsel and firing its CEO, WellStar Health System Inc. of Marietta, Georgia, has issued a public statement explaining why. The letter from the board of trustees said CEO Gregory Simone’s “very close personal and professional relationship with the then-general counsel [Bonnie Wilson] was adversely impacting operations at WellStar Health System, creating an unhealthy and dysfunctional climate on the senior leadership team, and threatening to damage the reputation and image of WellStar.” The letter also claimed that Wilson accused Simone of sexually harassing her. The trustees gave the letter to the Marietta Daily Journal, which published it Saturday. Benton Mathis, Jr., attorney for both Simone and Wilson, called the letter “a despicable act by WellStar, filled with inaccuracies, false statements, and out of context events.” Mathis, managing partner of the Atlanta law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary, was reached on vacation over the weekend. “Bonnie Wilson denied any sexual harassment in writing to WellStar’s head of human resources,” Mathis said. “Nor was there any romantic relationship between Dr. Simone and Ms. Wilson. That was the allegation made the night that Dr. Simone was terminated” last September 3, Mathis added. The letter doesn’t overtly allege a romantic relationship, but it strongly hints at one. It cites several late night dinners between Simone and Wilson not related to business, secret coded messages between them, and gift exchanges. WellStar operates a network in Georgia including five hospitals, several urgent care centers, an independent living facility for seniors and other programs. Sales last year exceeded $397 million. The trustees said they released the letter to respond to ongoing attacks by Simone and Mathis. But Mathis said they released it to divert attention away from intense press scrutiny of the company’s business dealings following a Medicaid scandal and the termination of three other top executives recently. The letter says Simone actually fired Wilson last August 31 after complaints from the board about the pair’s closeness. Wilson, the letter adds, later told the trustees that she felt pressured by Simone, but that there had been no romantic affair. Wilson is now of counsel with the Atlanta law firm Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn, & Dial. She didn’t return messages seeking comment. Three days after Simone ousted Wilson, the board fired him. At the time it offered no reasons for the two executives’ leaving. In the letter, the board said it fired Simone because it had lost “confidence” and “trust” in him. The letter says the board had repeatedly warned Simone about his disruptive relationship with Wilson and its effect on other executives, but he failed to fulfill promises to change his behavior. The letter was signed by Sharon Morgan, of the Atlanta firm of Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson. Morgan didn’t return calls for comment. The firing and its aftermath in some ways echoes the situation that engulfed Mark Hurd last year, Hewlett Packard Company’s former CEO, when he resigned under pressure in August. An internal investigation found Hurd had a personal relationship with a female contractor who received inappropriate payments from the company. >>Read a story about the HP situation here . Hurd privately settled the contractor’s sexual harassment claims for an undisclosed sum. At the time, general counsel Michael Holston said Hurd “demonstrated a profound lack of judgment that seriously undermined his credibility and damaged his effectiveness in leading HP.” But Mathis said the WellStar facts are quite different. There was no independent investigation of Simone, Mathis said, and no findings of wrongdoing. “The firing was based solely on small-town vicious gossip,” Mathis added. “The trustees should admit that they acted precipitously based on a false rumor instead of trying to hide behind their lawyer.” Simone and Wilson are evaluating their options, Mathis said. But he said both received severance packages, worth about $2.7 million for Simone and $1 million for Wilson, requiring them at the time to sign waivers not to sue.

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