Ambulance Chasers

Winning ambulance contracts? It's all about who you know. (Unless it's about the dirt they've got on you.)

To realize that the guy they'd respected, the guy they thought was on their side, was actually on their former boss's payroll, was shocking.

"It was so hard to believe," Payne says. "I was just astonished."

They got over their shock soon enough, though. And then they were ready to use the information against Cantelme.

Pat Cantelme
Giulio Sciorio
Pat Cantelme
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.
Giulio Sciorio
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.

Executives at Bob Ramsey's old company, Southwest, felt his shadow looming for years. Rural/Metro had bought him out -- but they knew he'd be back in the business.

Ramsey didn't hide his intentions to return. He bought three smaller companies, after all, and announced, more than once, that he would be applying for 911 certification. He also met with fire officials and plotted ways to get around the state's onerous licensing process.

Southwest officials tried to stop him every step of the way.

For example: In 2001, Ramsey was trying to buy a company called American Ambulance, then in bankruptcy. Southwest actually bought the rights to an $84 coffee bill that was past due when American filed for bankruptcy.

Having rights to the account allowed Southwest to intervene in the bankruptcy and try to block Ramsey's purchase.

And when the block didn't work, Ramsey says, Southwest sued the state Department of Health Services, arguing that it shouldn't transfer the bankrupt company's license.

Ramsey not only got the transfer, but Southwest was required to pay both his legal fees and those of the state, too, he says.

The turf war was bitter enough that Billy Shields, president of Cantelme's old union, attempted a mediation. He met with Ramsey, Cantelme, and both Southwest's CEO -- a former employee of Ramsey's named Barry Landon -- and one of Southwest's lawyers.

The group considered a number of options.

"I thought there was enough business to go around," Shields says. "That's what Pat always said."

But in the end, the parties reached an impasse.

"There's no way I could do business with those people," Cantelme says.

"I failed," Shields says. "There was just too much bad blood."

He blames Landon, Southwest's CEO.

"Pat is a compromiser, and while Bob had a lot of hard feelings, [Bob's] point was, 'These don't have to be personal attacks.' But Barry was just acting like he was there because he had to be. All he'd say was, 'I can't meet then. I've got budgets to do that day.'"

Landon points to more of a philosophical difference.

"In the final analysis, we concluded that the business opportunities were limited and the cultural differences were too significant," he says.

He won't elaborate on "cultural differences."

As bad as the fight was behind the scenes, it didn't really become public until this year. That's when Ramsey finally bought PMT, a company with the right certification to do 911 service.

And that's when things really heated up.

First, there was the Scottsdale request for proposals -- the first head-to-head competition between Ramsey and his former company. PMT is expected to win the contract this week.

Southwest has protested bitterly, arguing that the process has been more than a little suspicious. After all, the city set up an independent committee to evaluate the two proposals, and even city council members have been barred from seeing what each company promised.

City councilman Ron McCullagh says that the idea of an independent committee is highly unusual. Mike Phillips, a spokesman for the city, doesn't answer the question of whether Scottsdale has ever used such a committee before. (He does say that the idea was discussed in an open meeting, and any objections could have been raised then.)

Meanwhile, the City of Chandler opted against automatically renewing Southwest's contract. It, too, issued a request for proposals.

Southwest, again, protested. The company believes that the city's requirements may violate federal anti-kickback statutes.

(Chandler is asking for the ambulance companies to pay the city to house ambulances in city stations, pay the salary of a new city staffer, and pay overtime salaries for Chandler firefighters to staff some ambulances. Because so many ambulance bills are paid by Medicare, the federal government has argued in the past that it ends up subsidizing such perks -- and that it isn't legal to offer them.)

"What we're after is a fair and open competition that improves public safety," says Landon, Southwest's CEO. "That's what Southwest Ambulance is about."

As for the company's protests in Scottsdale and Chandler, Landon says, "They speak for themselves."

Company insiders at Southwest acknowledge, privately, that the company needs to work harder on the public relations front. Landon, they say, is a good boss to work for, but he's a numbers guy.

He can't compete with Cantelme and Ramsey when it comes to charm or the ability to schmooze.

Indeed, in an interview with New Times, Cantelme accused Landon of being "the Tom DeLay of this thing" -- meaning, apparently, that he's orchestrated vicious attacks on his opposition.

Rather than refute the charge, Landon confesses that he doesn't know who Tom DeLay, the recently dethroned and extremely high-profile Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is. "I'm not a political guy," he says.

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