weather icon Windy

3 Nevada dental board members resign, top staffers terminated

Updated November 8, 2019 - 9:46 am

Three members of the Nevada Board of Dental Examiners previously accused of ethical lapses are leaving the agency, and two top staffers were terminated, state officials announced Thursday.

This clears the way for reform of a controversial agency that was the focus of a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation that showed the board’s lax oversight failed patients.

Executive director Debra Shaffer-Kugel and general counsel Melanie Bernstein Chapman were terminated and will leave Dec. 5, after Gov. Steve Sisolak said “it has become very clear, there’s a pattern displaying a lack of oversight and accountability.”

The three board members accused of ethical conflicts — Gregory Pisani, Jason Champagne and Byron Blasco — resigned Thursday.

Sisolak vowed to address the dental board and other state regulatory boards that have had problems in recent years during an audit committee meeting Thursday.

“I am not interested in any more Band-Aid solutions for the state of Nevada,” he said.

The actions come less than two weeks after a Review-Journal investigation found the board repeatedly failed to revoke or suspend the licenses of Las Vegas dentists accused of injuring patients. In addition, nearly half the board had allegations of conflicts of interest, and the board repeatedly failed to abide by open meetings laws, the stories showed.

Dentist David Lee, who remains on the board, said the changes came swiftly Thursday morning.

He attributed the resignations and terminations to Sisolak’s push for reform, the Review-Journal investigation and Shaffer-Kugel’s decision to distribute an anonymous letter this week questioning the ethics of the governor and his staff.

“The noose started tightening up,” he said. “And people started panicking, right? And then that anonymous letter.”

Termination then resignations

The terms of three board members — president Yvonne Bethea, secretary/treasurer R. Michael Sanders and Timothy T. Pinther — expired Oct. 31. Sisolak said Thursday he will not reappoint them.

Board members Lee, Gabrielle Cioffi, D. Kevin Moore and Joan Shadler told the governor Thursday they want to remain after Sisolak mistakenly announced that everyone had resigned. It is not clear whether board member Betty Pate is staying.

Cioffi said she received a call from Pisani around noon saying the employment committee, which some members didn’t even know existed, was considering terminating Shaffer-Kugel’s and Chapman’s contracts. Then Pisani told her he and the two other members had decided to resign.

“The governor wants a clean slate,” she said about the reasoning of the board members about why they resigned. “That’s what he’ll get. He wants it. He wants to move forward and get all fresh blood in there.”

Dental board called vindictive

Lee said he was happy because the longtime board members and top staff were vindictive and didn’t listen to the new board members or even tell them which dentists the board was investigating. Lee thought if he upset the board or the staff there might be an anonymous complaint filed against him.

“So I was always afraid,” he said. “That’s the type of vindictiveness I think that she (Shaffer-Kugel) has, and the rest of them.”

Moore said the new board members are open to any suggestions for reform, including legislative changes that would put more public members on the panel.

“I just went to this convention that all 50 states are invited to attend,” he said. “It was really eye-opening for us to talk to some of those different states. … That (is) something that we as the new board really need to look hard at to do.”

The dental board has been the focus complaints for at least four years, which sparked a legislative and executive branch audit.

After the Review-Journal investigation was published at the end of October, Sisolak asked the board to cancel its monthly meeting until today’s audit meeting.

On Tuesday, Shaffer-Kugel emailed an anonymous letter to the Review-Journal and state officials saying Sisolak, a Democrat, and his staff had conflicts of interest in their relationship with board critics, referring to the Las Vegas Dental Association. But audits of the agency were started by Republicans before Sisolak was elected.

Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford called her actions “reprehensible.”

“A member of the dental board attempted to push salacious and false accusations to the media to undermine myself and my office before this meeting, going so far as to urge an investigation into those false allegations,” Sisolak said. “The timing of this concerted effort to attack my integrity and the integrity of my office does not appear coincidental.”

Staff fail to show

Dental board lobbyist Michael McDonald was the only person speaking for the board Thursday. He read a statement he said was provided by the resigning board members. The statement said Shaffer-Kugel and Chapman were not terminated because of problems with their job responsibilities.

“The individuals worked tirelessly and commendably in the face of unimaginable, unjustified attempts to malign them and their reputation,” he said. “The board feels they were placed in an intolerable position by the unscrupulous actions of others.”

The board advised the staffers they did not have to be at Thursday’s audit committee meeting, because they will not be overseeing the implementation of recommendations.

Dental board members are appointed for three-year terms and can be removed by the governor, but staff members are appointed by the board.

Sisolak said the dental board isn’t the only one that will face scrutiny, though he did not go into details.

“Going forward, I am only interested in discussing how we fix these problems,” he said. “The critical first step is to acknowledge that these issues related to some of the same licensing boards spanned many years for many, multiple administrations.”

After the meeting, Sisolak said he didn’t know if he would let the remaining board members stay on the panel, and he promised to reform the board before the 2021 legislative session.

“We’re going to address that expeditiously — the reconstitution of that board,” he said.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Contact Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-0661. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ArthurMKane, @DentzerNews and @ColtonLochhead on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Support our journalism.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.