Swedish Health’s ambitious Seattle plans involved a developer with a stake in their success

Real-estate developer David Sabey’s support of Swedish’s Cherry Hill campus has had broad benefits for Swedish — and for Sabey. But as hospital executives draw a benefactor close, that relationship can complicate efforts to maintain control over medical programs.

As he was leaving Swedish Health’s Cherry Hill campus one evening earlier this year, Dr. Charles Cobbs received a call on his cellphone.

The neurosurgeon had been raising concerns that Swedish’s commitment to patient safety was wavering. Now, on the other end of the phone, someone was asking if he would back off his remarks, according to a memo Cobbs sent the next morning.

The caller wasn’t a Swedish co-worker or boss or anyone with a medical degree. It was David Sabey, a powerful real-estate developer who is one of Swedish’s largest donors and also its landlord at the Cherry Hill campus.

Sabey, according to Cobbs’ memo, told the surgeon he could face legal action from people at Swedish that would “significantly impact” him and his family for years.

“I consider Mr. Sabey’s statements to me a threat, completely inappropriate and possibly illegal,” Cobbs emailed Teresa Bigelow, chair of Swedish’s board of trustees.

Sabey disputes Cobbs’ characterization of the call, but his intervention illustrates how much the developer has become embedded within the Swedish organization, where he has wielded influence as a critical partner in an ambitious effort to build a world-class institution.

While it’s common for hospitals to have close relationships with their top benefactors, prominent experts in nonprofit and health-care law say the Swedish-Sabey alliance has developed an unusual interdependence, setting up potential conflicts and pitfalls that some organizations work to avoid.

“I’ve never heard of something like this,” said Ann Bittinger, a Florida-based lawyer who specializes in business transactions for health-care…

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