Dental board members, staff resign amid critical audit, Sisolak criticism

Three members of the state’s dental occupational licensing board, plus two top staff members, have resigned from the board amid a scathing audit and sharp criticism from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Sisolak announced Thursday during a meeting of the Executive Branch Audit Committee (composed of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and controller) that three members of the board had resigned immediately, and that he had opted not to reappoint three board members whose terms ended in October.

The board’s executive director and general counsel have also opted to resign their positions and will leave the board on December 5. 

In comments made during the meeting, Sisolak referenced “salacious and false accusations” made in an anonymous letter sent by dental board staff to a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter yesterday suggesting unethical connections between Sisolak, his chief of staff and the Nevada Dental Association, a critic of the dental board.

Sisolak said he had “thick skin” but would defend “the integrity of my staff to my last breath.”  He also acknowledged that past governors had tangled with little positive results with many of the state’s occupational boards — quasi-independent regulatory and licensing bodies composed of industry professionals — but said he would seek to solve the “long-standing, systemic and structural” problems with oversight and control of occupational licensing boards.

“This has gotten totally out of control,” Sisolak said. “The timing of this concerted effort to attack my integrity, and the integrity of my office, does not appear coincidental…My disappointment is because I believe this public charade is an embarrassment to the state of Nevada.”

Although the governor and a board lobbyist initially announced that the entirety of the board had resigned, four members of the board — David Lee, Kevin Moore, Gabrielle Cioffi, Joan Shadler — attended the meeting and said they had not resigned from the board.

During the meeting, dental board lobbyist Michael McDonald (also the chair of the state’s Republican Party), read a statement from the resigned board members saying that they believed it would be in the best interest of the future of the board for them to resign.

“These vacancies will result in a board that does not have a president, secretary or a statutorily-required review panel, and therefore has been rendered entirely unable to act,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.

McDonald also said the “parting of ways” between the board and its top staff members was “not due to any fault of the individuals that worked tirelessly and commendable in the face of unimaginable, unjustified attempts to malign themselves and their reputation. The board feels these women have been placed in an impossible position, due to unscrupulous actions by others.”

As with the state’s other occupational licensing boards (31 in total), the dental board is composed of members appointed by the governor, but largely operates independently of the state’s other governmental branches. All occupational boards are funded by fees and not state general revenue, and oversee, regulate and license more than 50 professions that represent an estimated 28 percent of the state’s workforce.

The meeting Thursday came as a six-month follow up to the board’s previous audit in July, which revealed multiple issues with board operations, including overlapping and ineffective processes for resolving complaints, and certain board members not disclosing conflicts of interest before voting on matters before the board.

Warren Lowman, head of the state’s Division of Internal Audits, told the committee on Thursday that it considered the four audit recommendations made to the board to be partially implemented, including recommendations to strengthen oversight of investigations and address potential conflicts of interests.

Sisolak, who at the time called the audit report the most “egregious” he’s seen in decades in government, has not shied away from further criticism of the board.

On Wednesday, Sisolak’s staff wrote that the governor was “disappointed” that the executive director of the dental board, Debra Shaffer-Kugel, had forwarded an anonymous letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal from her state email account.

Sisolak’s office told the Review-Journal in a statement that the allegations were “outrageous and false” and an attempt to “undermine his goal of providing oversight and accountability of this board and all licensing boards in the interest of the health and safety of Nevadans.”

The 2019 audit — which was initiated under former Gov. Brian Sandoval — follows the findings from a 2016 audit conducted by legislative auditors that revealed “systemic issues” with board operations, poor record-keeping and raised questions about the board’s system for investigating public complaints. Sandoval instructed the board to address its problems with the patient complaint process, saying “I’ve never seen that happen before with people as upset as they are with … the board of dental examiners.”

Prior to the meeting, two positions on the board’s roster were listed as vacant; Board President Yvonne Bethea and R. Michael Sanders. Both of their terms expired on Oct. 31, along with another board member, Timothy T. Pinther.

A spokesman for Sisolak said in an email that the governor is “currently vetting applicants for those positions and looks forward to making appointments to fill the expired vacancies in the near future.”