Left: Loretto Hospital has been embroiled in scandal. Right: State Senator Kimberly Lightford at a news conference in March 2020. (Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago)

When scandal engulfed Loretto Hospital this spring, the West Side facility had a powerful champion: Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford.

Lightford defended hospital administrators when they admitted improperly vaccinating people at Trump Tower and other places miles from the community the hospital serves. She stood by the officials even after multi-million insider contracts with the business partner of Loretto’s chief financial officer were revealed.

Lightford’s staunch support of Loretto is part of her legacy — but she’s also been the recipient of perks and payments from the publicly funded hospital for years, the Better Government Association and Block Club Chicago found. 

She’s been paid by an insurance firm owned by Loretto, which also paid for her to travel to the Caribbean for firm meetings, records show. During some of those trips, she stayed at a luxury hotel and used campaign funds to cover the cost.

Lightford’s campaign fund also has accepted more than $38,000 in contributions from the hospital’s key management contractor, records show.

A Democrat from Maywood, Lightford has served on Loretto’s board for 21 years and is currently the vice chairman. The lawmaker’s website touts that she has steered $26 million in state grants to the hospital, which has put her name above its emergency room front door.

Exactly how much Lightford was paid by Loretto’s insurance firm is not listed on the hospital’s tax statements or on Lightford’s state ethics disclosures, the BGA and Block Club found.

Lightford declined calls and written requests for comment.

Loretto’s recent stumbles throw a spotlight on the senator’s service to the hospital and on the facility’s small, politically connected Board of Trustees. 

Loretto’s website currently lists six board members, including Lightford. One of their top jobs is ensuring the hospital is following federal rules for taxpayer-funded programs, most notably from Medicare and Medicaid.

Two members of the board — including Lightford — have received perks or payments through Loretto. The board chairman’s law firm billed the hospital for at least $3 million in legal fees over 11 years, although Loretto said his firm worked at a discount.

Another two members, the hospital’s CEO and a prominent doctor, are paid by Loretto while serving on the board that’s tasked with the hospital’s oversight.

And Loretto’s board and senior staff included two other state lawmakers until one resigned in March.

The hospital’s compliance officer, who vets all staff and board conflict of interest statements, has private business ties to Loretto’s top attorney, who is tasked with defending the institution against legal claims and government investigations. 

Health care ethics experts said it’s not illegal for board trustees to do business with the hospital, but these sort of personal financial entanglements could compromise the board’s independence.

“This is a relatively small board for a hospital. And if three or four of them have some sort of insider benefits, it’s really hard to police that — because it is harder for one director to call out the others,” said Donald Kramer, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s nonprofit law program who reviewed the BGA/Block Club findings.

The benefits to board members and a state lawmaker who served on the hospital’s senior staff were not always disclosed in the charity’s nonprofit tax returns, the BGA and Block Club found in this new examination of hospital tax reports stretching over two decades. 

Loretto’s board members declined individual requests for interviews, directing questions to hospital spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

Carroll answered few questions about Loretto’s financial relationships with specific trustees and staff, but she said the hospital tax statements were prepared by certified public accountants and independent auditors before being submitted to the IRS.

The board members’ work for Loretto was good for the hospital in the long run, she said.

“Safety net hospitals in Illinois have been forced to close because of a reliance on the old models of operating,” Carroll wrote in an emailed statement. “Loretto challenged itself to find ways to generate new revenue, reduce costs and expand and maintain high-quality health care services to help reduce inequities facing the communities it serves and it’s done exactly that.”

Loretto Hospital, a 122-bed, acute-care center, serves mainly low-income people and patients of color, and in recent years, the hospital has warned it could close due to funding shortfalls.

The hospital has been under renewed scrutiny since March, when Block Club revealed COVID-19 vaccines went to ineligible people at Trump Tower, a Gold Coast jewelry shop and a steakhouse, among other places. The former chief financial officer who arranged for those doses, Dr. Anosh Ahmed, subsequently resigned. Block Club and the BGA also found Loretto awarded at least $3.9 million in hospital contracts to Ahmed’s friend and business partner.