Fontaine: John’s Bannon, Ron’s Bannon

Fontaine: John’s Bannon, Ron’s Bannon


Leonard Zwelling

When Dan Fontaine and I were still friends and colleagues (yes, I will admit to it), he told me two important facts. Both are looming large in my mind now.

The first fact is that he wanted to retire at age 58. Dan graduated from the University of Houston Law School in May of 1982. Assuming he took no time off from school after he was 5, that would make him at least 25 at graduation and born in about 1957. I think that he will be 60 this year and I don’t see that he has retired.

The second fact was that once Dr. Mendelsohn retired from the presidency, Leon Leach would retire along with him and Dan would assume all Leon’s duties and retain the ones he already had. That would clearly make him the most powerful person at MD Anderson at the dawn of the DePinho Presidency.

That didn’t happen, but soon enough, Dan got his position as king of all the gold and chief of all who move the gold around.

Now that he has made good on his dream to control all that is administration and finance, how about keeping the retirement bargain?

Dan had managed to make himself the essential person in both the Mendelsohn and DePinho executive suites. As such, he has to bear some responsibility for the terrible morale at the institution, the fading financial prospects, and the overall poor functioning of what was once an engine of efficient clinical care and a generator of a 4% margin. That latter figure is very healthy in the hospital business as Mr. Leach taught me long ago.

Like Steve Bannon in the current White House, Dan comports himself with a wily combination of arrogance and dismissal of the faculty. In Bannon’s case he dismisses the press. This is on display each and every time Dan takes the stage before a faculty audience and frankly, I am glad I am not there because I would be getting myself in trouble protesting his continued disservice to the institution I love.

I guess I have one more confession. Much of this is my fault.

In late 1995, during my early months as an Associate Vice President, one of the faculty members ran afoul of the FDA and my office and the IRB had to discontinue his privileges to do clinical research. The FDA came very close to shutting us down then, but we survived. I think they took pity on a naïve and novice administrator (me) and didn’t hand down a death sentence.

The faculty member subsequently sued me and my boss, Dave Hohn, in federal court. The UT System’s Office of General Counsel sent in the SEALs in the person of Mr. Fontaine. Much of this transpired as the shift from President LeMaistre to President Mendelsohn occurred and Dr. Mendelsohn was most impressed with Dan and not so much with the attorneys he had inherited.

Dr. Mendelsohn asked me and I am sure many others what their thoughts about hiring Dan for that role might be. I was enthusiastic. Dan got us off the hook in federal court and was a superb attorney and negotiator. I am sure he still is. Business development and finance? Not so much.

You see while Dan knew the law cold and knew Texas law even colder, he never really understood what the faculty at MD Anderson does. He can spout off the core values and make a great speech about the mission of MD Anderson, but the most important asset of MD Anderson, the faculty, was something he never truly cared to get. I think that is why Dan and the faculty have been at such loggerheads all these years. He didn’t get them and they didn’t get him.

I cannot tell you how sorry I am that the latter is the case because Dan was a tremendous help to me on more than one occasion and we worked very well together when he was the Chief Legal Counsel and I was Vice President for Research Administration. At least I thought so.

Any way, I think the time has come for Dan to make good on the desire he expressed to me about his retirement and go ahead and get on with it. If he doesn’t, I fear he will be caught up in what is shaping up to be a really nasty palace coup as the Chancellor sends in the SEALs to take out a reluctant autocrat and we know how good the SEALs are at their jobs.

I think it is time for Dan to move on to his next adventure. It worked for me.

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