Over and Out
At a champagne-soaked dinner Dr. Akhil Bidani thanked Baylor College of Medicine administrators for putting their trust in him. The festivities at Montrose's swank Colombe d'Or celebrated Bidani's appointment to the prestigious, $2 million endowed chair in pulmonary medicine.
Baylor spent eight months courting Bidani, an MD with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering who is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary disease and critical care medicine. Before accepting Baylor's offer to become director of the department of pulmonary and critical care medicine, Bidani spent 16 years chairing the same section at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Prior to taking the job, Bidani says, he was given an operating budget for Baylor's department. The section's expenditures (including all employee salaries) totaled approximately $7 million, Bidani says. And the budget showed a nearly $400,000 profit. The division looked healthy, he says.
Two weeks before Bidani was scheduled to start, he says, he received a different budget; instead of a surplus, the department had a $400,000 debt.
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Bidani says he was confused about the discrepancy and asked officials about it. He wanted to know why the figures didn't match and how they planned to eliminate the debt.
Four days later, Baylor withdrew the job offer. The school said Bidani wasn't a good fit. Essentially, he was fired before he even began.
Bidani is a serious man who works seven days a week and publishes 12 academic research papers a year. "There are more books in my house than there are in libraries," he says. He served as professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at UTMB. Under his leadership, he says, UTMB was the only teaching hospital in Texas to be named one of the country's top 100 hospitals by Solucient, a health care information company, on its Web site, www.100tophospitals.com.
Bidani already had a research grant from the National Institutes of Health and a tenured position, but because he does research, the $2 million endowed chair attracted him. "When you're trying to do new things, you need capital and resources," Bidani says.
He officially accepted Baylor's offer and resigned from UTMB in July 2001. In mid-September, Baylor threw the celebratory dinner in his honor. Lab renovation work delayed his start at Baylor until November. He spent his time meeting with faculty and staff to prepare for his new position. In the we're-so-happy-you-took-the-position letter to Bidani, the chief of medicine told him that they would forgive the department's debt.
Bidani didn't know the department had any debt.
That October, he met with a financial official to discuss why the department was $400,000 in the red and what needed to be done to change it.
"I did not give them an ultimatum, I just brought to their awareness that they had a problem," Bidani says. "I was ready to deal with the shit they had I had made a commitment to them."
He says $400,000 might seem small compared to the section's overall $7 million budget. But he adds that the budget's clinical income of $1.1 million was inflated to nearly $1.9 million, making a 70 percent "error." The rest of the budget, he says, came from grants and relatively fixed, stable contracts with other hospitals. This misrepresentation, he says, is not minor.
The following Saturday, two days after the meeting about finances, Dr. Andrew Shafer, the chairman of the department of medicine at the time, e-mailed him, saying that serious issues had developed and they needed to meet immediately. On Monday morning, Baylor officially withdrew the job offer. "Shafer said, 'This is not gonna work out, you're not gonna work out,' " Bidani remembers. "He was very angry and very mean. It was like being called in by a dad and dressed down because you pissed on the carpet."
He says he was never given a clear explanation about Baylor's sudden change toward him. If they had any reservations about him, he says, he wishes they had told him before he resigned from UTMB.
"I'm the same person," he says. "They looked at me for eight months. Suddenly, I'm not the right fit. I did not go naked in front of Baylor, I did not do anything embarrassing, I did not do anything bad."
He says friends speculate that since he was dismissed a few months after 9/11, it could have been a result of his last name. "Bidani" can be Indian, Italian or Iranian, he says. Bidani is an India native and American citizen; he has a beard and a dark complexion and is a man who -- if he didn't have a fear of flying -- would most likely be searched by airport security.
His attorney, John Zavitsanos, says that Baylor was Enron-like in inflating the department's profits. Zavitsanos says Bidani was fired because he didn't "go along with these financial lies."
"Once he put the microscope on these numbers, he was not going to support that," Zavitsanos says. "They knew they could not force him to go along with financial misrepresentation, so they got rid of him."
This month, Bidani sued Baylor for breach of contract, misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment and defamation.
The lawsuit alleges that he had an employment contract with Baylor to be a tenured department chair and could not be terminated without cause. "Baylor shirked its contractual obligations," the lawsuit says.
In the petition, Zavitsanos declares that Bidani was "duped by Baylor" and that Baylor defamed and slandered Bidani by innuendo and implication and damaged his business reputation and credibility.
"Even my friends think there is something I am not sharing -- something secret, something dirty," Bidani says. "It was all over the city. It was very, very publicly humiliating."
Damages will most likely exceed several million dollars, the petition says, because of the section-chief position, research grants, prestige, responsibility and opportunities of the job.
Baylor's senior director of communications, Ron Gilmore, says Baylor officials cannot comment on pending litigation. Baylor's legal counsel did not return phone calls.
Bidani couldn't go back to his position at UTMB, because the hospital had already accepted his resignation and hired someone else. He took a less prestigious position with a smaller salary as professor of medicine and director of pulmonary and critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Bidani is also an adjunct professor of computer and electrical engineering at Rice.
"Baylor is such a powerful force in the Houston medical community -- they've really put this guy in a box," Zavitsanos says. "If you're in academia and you cross Baylor, your options are very, very limited."
Residents and physicians still stop him in the hospital hallways and ask him why the Baylor position was taken away from him.
"At Baylor, there is so much dirt -- the only way to keep your position is to keep your mouth shut," Bidani says. "It used to be a place of high morals."
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