Gov. Steve Sisolak slammed the Nevada dental board executive director Wednesday afternoon for distributing an anonymous letter that links him and his staff to critics of the panel. The letter and the governor’s response came just before a Thursday audit review of the agency.
Debra Shaffer-Kugel, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners, sent the letter Tuesday evening to the Review-Journal from her state email account. The letter questioned campaign contributions to Sisolak and his chief of staff’s connections to the Las Vegas Dental Association.
“The Governor is disappointed that a little over 24 hours before tomorrow’s (Thursday) Executive Branch Audit Committee meeting, where there will be a 6-month report on the audit of the Dental Board that was initiated by Governor Sandoval, the executive director of the Board attempted to push outrageous and false accusations to the media in 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,” his staff wrote in an emailed statement Wednesday.
Shaffer-Kugel sent the letter from an anonymous “concerned citizen” to the Review-Journal and state officials. The letter requests an investigation of the alleged connections.
In October, the Review-Journal published an investigation that found repeated failures by the board to revoke the licenses of dentists who were alleged to have made mistakes.
Our “office received a letter from a concerned citizen that outlines the personal and business relationships between members of the LVDA (Las Vegas Dental Association), their attorneys, their lobbyist and members of the Governor’s staff,” Shaffer-Kugel wrote in the email with the letter attached. “Also, it states thousands of dollars in campaign contributions were made by some of these individuals to the Governor.”
Sisolak promises reforms
In his Wednesday statement, Sisolak said boards that operate with integrity should have no concerns. But, “if they are concerned, that is a clear demonstration of the overall problem and why it must be addressed.”
“The Governor refuses to be intimidated or distracted,” the statement said. “He is not interested in partaking in this irresponsible behavior or taking sides in a decades-long dispute that’s existed in this industry. He is committed to finding a solution that will create full time oversight of this board and other licensing boards once and for all.”
Despite Shaffer-Kugel’s email to the Review-Journal, she has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Warren Lowman, administrator of internal audits, said Sisolak, a Democrat, did not push for a board audit, which was authorized before Sisolak took office this year. The Executive Branch Audit Committee authorized the audit in October 2018, and the committee was then made up of Gov. Brian Sandoval, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, State Treasurer Dan Schwartz, Controller Ron Knecht and Attorney General Adam Laxalt — all Republicans. There was also a public member of the committee. Laxalt lost last year’s gubernatorial race to Sisolak.
Lowman, in response to a Review-Journal question, said it is not clear whether Shaffer-Kugel’s email violated any state laws or rules on the use of government email, but he questioned her distribution of the letter.
“This is poor judgment, and she is trying to manipulate public policy in a way that is unseemly,” he said.
Stories reveal board mistakes
The Review-Journal stories also documented conflicts of interest for nearly half the board and violations of the state’s open meeting law.
One story exposed how the Las Vegas Dental Association (LVDA) and its executive director, who has been investigated by the board three times and disciplined twice, prompted the audits. The story also revealed which LVDA allegations were accurate and which were not.
In the email, Shaffer-Kugel asked whether the Review-Journal would investigate the political contributions to Sisolak by LVDA lobbyist Alisa Nave-Worth, a partner at prominent lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, and the allegation that Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White, previously worked at an animal hospital owned by Nave-Worth’s father.
“During your investigation for your articles, did you know about these relationships and failed to disclose them?” she wrote. “Did you vet the information you received and the individuals you receive (sic) the information from prior to the article being printed?”
But it is not clear whether she has read the Review-Journal investigation. She emailed the newspaper on Oct. 29, saying she does “not subscribe or read the Review Journal.”
“The Review-Journal aggressively and thoroughly investigated all newsworthy angles in connection with the Board of Dental Examiners,” Executive Editor Glenn Cook said Wednesday. “And Debra Shaffer-Kugel, as well as every member of the dental board, declined to be interviewed as part of our investigation.”
LVDA members and Nave-Worth did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment Wednesday.
Audit committee to meet
Sisolak, the dental board and auditors are scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon to determine whether the board complied with recommendations from a June audit of the agency. Sisolak canceled a monthly dental board meeting last week, asking the agency to postpone until after the audit committee meeting.
The anonymous letter cites donations by Nave-Worth to Sisolak’s campaigns for governor and Clark County Commission and White working as marketing director for the clinics owned by Nave-Worth’s father as conflicts.
“If you follow the money I would bet this all leads back to these dentists who are with the Las Vegas Dental Association who are using these political connections all the way up to the Governor to further their cause to stop the Dental Board from taking disciplinary action against them,” the letter said.
At June’s audit meeting about the board, Sisolak said he was consulting his attorney about possible changes.
“I don’t know where to begin, but I’m not happy the way this turned out. I’m not at all happy the way it turned out,” he said.
Contact Arthur Kane at email@example.com. Follow @ArthurMKane 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.