September was a good month for Michael McDonald.
Buoyed by endorsements from President Donald Trump’s inner circle and elected officials statewide, McDonald beat back two challengers to win re-election to a fifth term leading the state’s Republican Party, promising that the “Nevada Republican Party is united and ready to deliver our state to President Trump and electing Republicans down the ballot in 2020.”
But leading the state party isn’t the only job on McDonald’s plate. For the past year, he’s worked as the lobbyist for the Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners, the seventh-largest occupational licensing board in the state — although public records raise questions about his work for the board.
Over the last two decades, McDonald has a history of representing unusual clients as a lobbyist, including a rural constable’s office and the Culinary Workers Union Local 226. But his working relationship with the state dental board, which oversees licenses and regulates dental health professionals, has been more than just unusual from the get-go.
Since he was hired in May 2018 (beating out two established lobbying firms led by former lawmakers), records indicate McDonald has spoken at just one board meeting in that 16 months. Public records requests reveal that his only written correspondence with the board since he was hired has been monthly invoices — a request for $3,428.57 every month.
Lobbyists and lawmakers reported not interacting or seeing him during the legislative session, and say he was invisible on often-technical bills that substantially affect operations of the dental board. McDonald did not return a text message seeking comment.
In short, it’s difficult to find any public evidence of work completed by McDonald since he accepted the two-year, $72,000 contract to provide government relations services for the board.
It has elicited questions from lobbyists who represent other state boards, who say that McDonald’s scope of work and practices are at best highly unusual for a state board lobbyist and could invite additional scrutiny of state licensing boards, which have a recent history of butting heads with other state government agencies.
“If I were heading up a regulatory board, and I found out my lobbyist wasn’t there on a regular basis, I would not renew that contract,” said Susan Fisher, a longtime lobbyist who represents three other state boards. “Why hire a lobbyist if they’re not going to be there?”
In spite of the unusual arrangement, staff of the dental board say they have no issue with McDonald, though the board’s executive director, Debra Shaffer-Kugel, declined to answer multiple emailed questions about McDonald’s attendance at board meetings and work for the board during and outside of the legislative session. She instead referred all questions to the board’s general counsel, Melanie Bernstein Chapman, who did not answer specific questions but said the board had no issues with McDonald or his activities as the board’s lobbyist.
“I have not been advised of, nor am I aware of, any concerns of the Board with respect to Mr. McDonald’s representation,” she wrote in an email.
A review of the minutes and audio records of the nine meetings held by the dental board since it agreed to hire McDonald as its lobbyist in May 2018 shows that he only spoke at one meeting, on March 22.
There, McDonald gave a roughly 10-minute review of a handful of bills related to dentistry, largely sticking almost word-for-word to the descriptions written by Legislative Counsel Bureau staff. He skimmed over a bill, SB366, which aimed to open up the practice of dental hygienists to operate in the state, and stayed out of a roughly 10-minute discussion on the bill and how it would affect dental practices statewide.
At one point during the March meeting, McDonald advised the board on SB156, a bill related to the practice of equine dentistry — a topic area overseen by the state’s veterinary board, not the board of dental examiners.
Outside of that meeting, traces of McDonald’s presence on behalf of the dental board are difficult to pin down. Outside of a pre-session meeting between several health-related occupational boards and an appearance at a court hearing involving the dental board (referenced in meeting minutes), McDonald is not listed as speaking or appearing at any additional board meetings or during any 2019 legislative hearings. According to a records request, McDonald sent just 12 emails over the course of his employment to staff and members of the Board of Dental Examiners; one including a signed copy of the lobbying contract, and 11 invoices sent on a monthly basis.
The Nevada Independent contacted several other lobbyists employed by state boards to ascertain whether or not McDonald’s apparent lack of public-facing activity was out of the ordinary.
Fisher, who represents the Oriental Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, said that it would be “highly unusual” for her not to check in at least weekly with each of the boards during the legislative session, on the status of bills that directly and indirectly affect her boards.
Fisher said she alternated between emails and phone calls depending on the issue, but found it strange for a board to employ a lobbyist who wasn’t physically present at the Legislature during the 120-day session.
“What’s the point of having a lobbyist if they’re not going to be in Carson City during session?” she said. “That’s a silo, and you’ve got to be in the silo.”
Michael Hillerby, a lobbyist for Kaempfer Crowell who represents several boards (Accountancy, Nursing and Pharmacy) said that it was “unusual” in his nearly three-decade career to see an occupational board lobbyist not be physically present during the legislative session. Hillerby, who lobbied on behalf of the dental board several years ago, said that the lobbying role for an occupational board was a little different from other clients, in that they were expected to largely stay out of policy fights and contribute as the “subject matter experts” as to how various proposals would affect the licensure and operation of certain professions.
“It would be odd not to be there to at least be ready to answer questions as to how it impacts you and why it impacts you,” he said.
SB366, the bill creating a new mid-level dental provider type (dental therapists), is a prime example. Although it was initially opposed by the state dental association, the task of implementing the regulations required under the bill falls to the dental board, which also submitted a fiscal note estimating that the first version of the bill would result in close to $300,000 in lost annual fee revenue (The Governor’s Office of Finance wrote that the board did not provide a spreadsheet with their calculations and ultimately concluded that the board’s estimated financial impact was not “reasonable.”)
The initial version of the bill would have created a separate dental hygienists board, removing that profession from the purview (and fees) of the state dental board — a change that would have major implications for the board.
McDonald was not present — at least, he did not sign his name on sign-in sheets reflected in board meetings — at any committee meeting where SB366 was discussed. Dental board Executive Director Debra Shaffer-Kugel attended and testified in the neutral position during the first hearing of the bill on March 29, but no representative from the dental board or McDonald attending any of the subsequent six committee meetings where the bill was heard or voted on — even after three substantial amendments overhauled major portions of the bill.
Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, the bill’s sponsor, told a reporter during the legislative session that she had no interaction with McDonald on the bill or on any subject. Nevada Dental Association lobbyist Chris Ferrari said he spoke with Chapman, the board’s general counsel, at the state of the session but otherwise did not interact with McDonald or anyone else from the dental board on the bill.
“It’s unusual to have such a big bill and not have a lobbyist there,” said Neena Laxalt, a lobbyist for the Nevada Dental Hygienist Association and several other boards.
Members of the dental board discussed the bill in depth during meetings in May and July of 2019, neither of which McDonald attended. Minutes from the board’s July 19 meeting show McDonald was absent; the board’s executive director said he was “ill.” A week later he was in Charlotte, North Carolina for a Republican National Committee event.
In an email, dental board general counsel Chapman said that the board was not directly asked for its position on the bill, did not introduce any legislation during the session and was committed to implementing regulations for any bills in its purview that were approved by state lawmakers.
“SB 366 was not the Board’s bill and, to my knowledge, the Board was never asked for, nor did it take a position for or against the bill but Mr. McDonald or a member of his staff did appear at the various hearings regarding the bill,” Chapman wrote in an email.
Boards and Commissions
As with contractors, nurses, private investigators and social workers, dentists in Nevada are overseen by one of Nevada’s occupational licensing boards. Dentistry is one of 50 occupations, professions or businesses overseen by 31 state boards.
Boards operate as a kind of quasi-governmental agency — board members come from the profession itself, but are appointed by the governor to serve three or four year terms. The boards don’t receive funds directly from the state, but are instead fully funded through licensure fees (registration, license renewal, etc.).
Boards serve a variety of roles, including investigating complaints, disciplining licensees and helping write regulations that affect their industry. Although the governor appoints — and can, in limited circumstances, remove — board members, most oversight of boards comes from the legislative branch, which both creates the scope and abilities of the boards through legislation and oversees them through an interim subcommittee.
Boards also vary in size and activity; the state Contractors Board reported more than $7 million in expenditures in 2018, while many smaller boards such as Athletic Trainers, Oriental Medicine and Landscape Architecture made it through the 2018 fiscal year with a budget under $100,000.
But unlike other state agencies, occupational boards (such as school districts and municipalities) have the budgetary freedom to hire lobbyists to represent them in front of the state Legislature and during the interim period between legislative sessions.
A previous Nevada Independent analysis of lobbying efforts by state boards and commissions found that at least 21 boards had hired a lobbyist in 2018, spending in total more than $577,000 for outside lobbying and public relations. Contracts varied widely in length and scope; the median amount spent by the boards was $21,000, though some were for less than $2,000, while on the other end of the spectrum, other more prominent boards inked six-figure lobbying and public relations contracts.
Lobbyists for state boards say they perform a necessary function for the agencies without requiring full-time staff or appointed board members spending time and resources at the Legislature. Some conservative leaning groups have criticized the arrangement, stating that hiring lobbyists allows boards to consolidate power and limit competition. At least 10 states have placed some limits on the ability of state agencies to hire lobbyists.
Though he has no apparent experience in health care or dental work, McDonald beat out two other lobbying firms (one run by former Democratic Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins and the other by former Democratic Assemblyman William Horne) to win the lobbying contract for the dental board in May 2018. In a previous email, Chapman said his position as head of the state Republican Party “was not discussed or considered as part of this process and was not a factor in the discussion or deliberation resulting in the decision to contract with him.”
According to registration records, his past lobbying experience includes representing the Nevada Republican Party in 2017, and several clients in 2015 including trial lawyer Glen Lerner, the Laughlin Constable’s office, the Armenian American Cultural Society of Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Rural Constable’s Alliance. He also appeared as a lobbyist for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in 2012.
In 2015, McDonald was also briefly employed in another state government-related job; working for the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office as a senior deputy treasurer, but resigned within three months of taking the position amid criticism that he was hired given his close relationship with then-state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, previously a finance director for the state Republican Party.
A former Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer, McDonald got his start in Nevada’s political world by winning election to the Las Vegas City Council in 1995. His momentum stalled amid ethics and tax investigations (McDonald was never charged with a crime and later said he had been “wrongfully accused”) and contributed to his defeat in a 2003 municipal election.
His path back to relevancy began in 2012 when he was elected chair of the state Republican Party, and he later won contentious re-election campaigns in 2013 and 2015 against party establishment-backed candidates. He’s cultivated a close relationship with President Donald Trump, including getting the then-candidate to appear at a 2016 fundraiser for the party in Lake Tahoe.
His company that received the lobbying contract, Alpha-Omega Strategies, has played a role in several non-lobbying related business interests. The company was incorporated in 1998, initially operating as a “consulting” firm for private investigations, and later received approval from the Las Vegas City Council to operate a senior housing and retail center in Northwest Las Vegas.
Reaction and opposition
The hiring of McDonald has done little to quell the often tempestuous relationship between the board, vocal critics in the dental community and state government.
McDonald was notably not present at a June meeting of the Executive Branch Audit Committee — composed of Gov. Steve Sisolak and other statewide elected “constitutional” officers (lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and controller) — where an at-times scathing audit into the dental board was publicly presented for the first time.
The audit found that at least three board members, including board President Yvonne Bethea, may have violated state ethics law between 2015 and 2018 by failing to disclose familial or professional relationship prior to casting votes, and raised questions about the board’s use of Disciplinary Screening Officers to broadly screen complaints made to the board.
Sisolak, who found the audit to be “very concerning,” at one point in the meeting asked if the board’s lobbyist — McDonald — was present.
Only Chapman, the board’s general counsel, appeared that day and took questions from the audit committee.
The 2019 audit was itself preceded by a 2016 audit, this one from legislative branch auditors who found the board had overcharged almost half of licensees under investigation, and allowed some offenders to make charitable donations in lieu of fine in contrast to state law.
Not unlike McDonald himself, the board has been a lightning rod for controversy. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval even asked the board to tackle 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.”
Correction: Updated at 1:55 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2019 to reflect that the Nevada Dental Association initally opposed, and did not support, SB366.