Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2009 | Features


By Tina Owen

Even the cozy surroundings of the Eggshell Café in the Deerfield suburb of Chicago—renowned for its warm atmosphere, good home-style cooking, and friendly staff—couldn’t ease Pam Kuhl Davis’s discomfort. Usually, the prospect of the upcoming breakfast business meeting wouldn’t faze her. As CEO and president of Naperville’s Edward Hospital, she’s widely known and respected as a tough administrator with nerves of steel and a backbone to match.

Davis harbored a secret, though—one that was taking a toll on her health and her equanimity. Unbeknown to her friends and colleagues, Davis lived a double life. She was an undercover informant, working with the FBI to root out alleged corruption within Illinois state politics—all the way to the governor’s mansion.

For months, Davis, 71BA, 73MA, endured a stressful charade. She wore hidden recording devices, had her home and office phones bugged, and met her FBI handlers in furtive liaisons. She lost weight and chewed her fingernails bloody. She felt isolated and burdened by doubt.

When her story became public earlier this year, though, Davis was hailed as the whistle-blower who helped bring down a string of allegedly corrupt politicians, public servants, and businessmen—ultimately leading to former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest, impeachment, and removal from office.

The meeting at the Eggshell Café took place in late 2003. Davis wore a tiny recording device tucked into her bra, while outside in the parking lot—in a scene made familiar by countless movies and TV shows—FBI agents sat in a van and listened in on the dirty deal being proposed.

Inside the restaurant, a construction company owner leaned across the table and confirmed what Davis had been warned earlier: she would only ever win an Illinois state board’s approval for a much-needed new hospital building if the contract, along with a substantial kickback, went to his firm.

Davis struggled to conceal her outrage. After earning her UI degrees in social work and hospital and health administration, she was passionate about helping people obtain access to crucial services. Edward Hospital needed to expand its facilities in order to improve or save the lives of desperately ill patients.

Like her parents, Paul Kuhl, 44MD [deceased], and Dorothy Ludwig Kuhl, 44MD [deceased]—both doctors—Davis has dedicated her life to the needs of patients. “The values my parents instilled in me were reinforced at the University of Iowa,” she adds. “That solid foundation—real Midwestern values of hard work and honesty—helped me throughout my career.”

Everything Davis heard in that café went against everything she held true.

“It was depressing. They were so cavalier with their demands; they had no shame,” she says now of her personal experiences with the kind of dubious deals that has earned Chicago and Illinois a reputation for dirty politics. “I began to think that maybe the world isn’t good and maybe the systems don’t work the way I thought they did. I questioned everyone and everything.”

Despite the shocking events she witnessed, Davis never wavered in her resolve to bring to justice people she still calls “the bad guys.” In fact, without her efforts, those bad guys might never have been caught. Davis not only tipped off the authorities to the nefarious dealings going on behind the scenes at many Chicago medical centers and other public projects—she was also willing to put herself on the front line.

Weeks before Davis’s rendezvous at the café, a state health planning board had rejected her request to expand Edward Hospital’s facilities. Afterwards, with a smirk on his face, one of the men involved in the shakedown scam told Davis to call him. Instead, she called the FBI.

At first, the federal agents had their doubts. As Davis admits, “It’s unusual to call the FBI unsolicited, and they were skeptical.”

But, after agents listened in on one of Davis’s meetings with the extortionists, she says it became “abundantly clear that something was wrong.” At the time, no one knew just how wrong.

Like a series of toppling dominoes, a multimillion dollar scam gradually fell apart. The men who’d tried to extort Edward Hospital eventually led investigators to players in other corrupt schemes. Over the next five years, a federal investigation called Operation Board Games revealed that a complex web of graft, bribery, and corruption stretched far and wide throughout Illinois—allegedly reaching all the way to Blagojevich.

At times, when she clipped on her wire and arranged meetings with shady but well-connected business people, Davis may have felt like an actor in an episode of The Sopranos. Other times, her undercover role took on aspects of pure farce. To avoid blowing her cover if she went to the FBI offices, she met her federal contacts at the makeup counter of Marshall Field’s department store to surreptitiously hand over tapes she’d recorded.

Once, her assistant unexpectedly walked into Davis’s office while an FBI agent knelt under the desk, setting up a wiretap for her phone. To Davis’s embarrassment and regret, she couldn’t explain the situation.

Often, Davis felt like she was working two jobs: one as government informant and the other running a hospital with a half-billion-dollar budget. The need for secrecy scraped on her nerves. Aware that FBI agents eavesdropped on all her conversations, including those with people unconnected to the investigation, she worried about invading her friends’ privacy. Normally gregarious, she began to isolate herself in her office and avoid staff. One key senior hospital executive, alarmed by Davis’s silence and the hospital’s failure to win state approval to expand, wondered about the prospect of layoffs.

“When it was finally revealed that Pam had gone to the FBI and wore a wire, I was absolutely stunned,” says marketing vice president Brian Davis (no relation to Pam). “I’m really proud of what Pam did. I don’t know how she handled the stress.”

This past December, as news broke of the charges against Blagojevich, Davis’s role in Operation Board Games became public knowledge. National media pounced on her story. ABC News named her its Person of the Week, while the Washington Post and the New Yorker regaled readers with the unlikely tale of the wired grandmother of six. Many of Davis’s friends found such portrayals misleading and annoying. Far from the stereotypical grandmother figure depicted in such reports, they say, Davis is a vibrant, successful community leader who could probably still fit into the Hawkeye cheerleader uniform she wore some 30 years ago.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was one of Many allegedly corrypt government officials whom Pam Davis helped bring to justice.

“Pam is no old lady,” says one acquaintance. “She’s a powerful, tough, good-looking woman, who wears furs and drives a Mercedes.”

Another friend, Jo Ellen Bender, 78BBA, 80MBA, says, “Even if Pam had nothing to do with the federal investigation, she’s done an incredible job turning around a small community hospital into one of the premier hospitals in Chicago.”

The FBI has also gone on record with its appreciation of Davis’s actions. Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant has said of her role in helping win convictions against corrupt businessmen, “Ms. Davis was invaluable and demonstrated her character and commitment to public integrity.”

Despite the upheaval that affected her life for years, the hospital CEO has no regrets about her role as whistle-blower. “For me, the decision was an easy one,” she explains. “It’s appalling that public and regulatory officials entrusted with overseeing important issues, such as health care, abused that trust.”

Now, Davis faces the prospect of appearing as a witness in various upcoming trials spawned by Operation Board Games, and, just a few weeks ago, former Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn (now the state’s new governor) appointed her to the newly formed Illinois Reform Commission, a 15-member panel charged with recommending ways to clean up the state’s government.

Pam Davis’s fight isn’t over. But at least now it’s out in the open.