Nevada investigator’s private business conflicted with state job

A state Funeral Board official, acting on a tip, in January found unrefrigerated bodies — some decomposing — and a box of limbs in a Reno funeral home warehouse.

The business was in violation of state regulations. In some states, a failure to refrigerate human remains would cost a funeral home its license.

But the investigation and prosecution of Shaun Bowen, the owner and then-managing funeral director of La Paloma Funeral Services, was far from simple. Bowen had another job: He was a deputy chief investigator at the Nevada attorney general’s office, and it was the responsibility of his colleagues to prosecute the civil charges against him and his business.

Bowen, who works in the office’s Medicaid fraud unit and makes $118,000 a year in salary and benefits, had not disclosed his role as the facility’s top boss. He also failed to request approval for the outside job last year, as state regulations require.

A phone call to the Nevada Funeral and Cemetery Services Board would have revealed that Bowen was managing funeral director for La Paloma’s Longley Lane facility in Reno.

More than 700 state employees have requested approval for second jobs ranging from barista and security guard to professor and small business owner. Officials often rely on an employee’s description of the work and perform little investigation. At least one agency maintains it cannot track the number of workers who do outside work or have their requests for additional employment denied.

Conflict of interest

Bowen’s case raises questions about how many state employees have outside jobs that create a conflict of interest.

University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik said Attorney General Adam Laxalt and his predecessors should have seen the potential problem with Bowen’s business.

“You don’t want any perception of a conflict of interest or a real conflict,” Herzik said. “It’s unclear about how vetted the request for secondary employment was at the AG’s office, and that’s where you see some of the breakdown.”

Despite the potential conflict, Bowen’s bosses had approved his additional work since 2008 — denying Bowen’s authorization to run La Paloma only after the funeral board’s case in May resulted in a record $80,000 fine.

Two months later on July 27, First Assistant Attorney General Wesley Duncan checked the box on Bowen’s outside job request that said Bowen’s work at the funeral home presents “a real or potential conflict of interest to the State of Nevada.”

He also questioned how Bowen could run the funeral home while fulfilling his state responsibilities.

The “Attorney General’s Office does not believe you can fully execute your duties both as a peace officer and supervisor while also performing accounting, bookkeeping and financial management functions for the business entities in question,” Duncan wrote.

The attorney general’s office turned the case over to the Nevada Office of Professional Responsibility for an independent review, AG spokeswoman Monica Moazez said in a written statement. She declined to comment further on a personnel matter.

“It is a matter of public record that earlier this year the Attorney General’s Office zealously represented the Funeral Board by prosecuting the funeral home and its key employees in a licensing proceeding, stemming from alleged misconduct in January 2017,” the statement said.

The funeral home said staff followed the law in caring for the bodies, and Bowen said the mortuary job did not conflict with his state duties.

Funeral home failures

The problems at La Paloma started in January, when the mortuary and crematorium received an unexpected influx of bodies from the Washoe County coroner. At the same time, a facility storage cooler was malfunctioning.

Employees bought shelves and fans to cool the bodies kept in a warehouse without refrigeration. La Paloma officials contend the warehouse was cold enough to keep the remains from decomposing because it was winter and the warehouse was not heated.

But a driver who was picking up a casket was alarmed by conditions in the warehouse and called the Funeral Board.

Nevada regulations require corpses to be stored at 48 degrees or colder, but state Funeral Board Executive Director Jennifer Kandt found warmer temperatures in the facility during her inspection. Several La Paloma employees also told her the lack of refrigeration was causing the decomposition, records show.

La Paloma’s attorney argued at a hearing that the thermostat Kandt used was not accurate. And the law says bodies must be stored at 48 degrees or below and does not specify that corpses must be refrigerated, La Paloma’s public relations consultant, Warren Hardy, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Kandt’s inquiry was made more difficult because she could not use her only investigator. That employee had recently worked under Bowen at the attorney general’s office.

“To me that seemed like a huge conflict of interest, and so I did not involve him in this case in any way,” Kandt testified at the Funeral Board hearing against La Paloma.

On March 9, the attorney general’s office charged La Paloma, Bowen and another employee with unprofessional conduct for failure to hold bodies at appropriate temperature, failure to treat bodies with dignity and record keeping problems, the complaint shows.

Kandt said she wanted to immediately suspend the licenses and push for revocation after finding that funeral boards in other states typically revoke licenses for failing to refrigerate bodies. But the attorney general’s staff suggested she go through the board process before taking any action against La Paloma.

“The AG recommended not to take that action at that point in time and just have the hearing,” she said in an interview. She declined to comment further on the attorney general’s actions.

During the hearing, Senior Deputy Attorney General Andrea Nichols, who represented board staff, recommended license revocation while Deputy Attorney General Sarah Anne Bradley, who represented the board, said the board would have to determine the case was egregious enough to revoke the license.

Decomposing body

During the investigation, La Paloma employees told Kandt the body of a 72-year-old man, who was picked up from a hospice in January, was decomposing in the unrefrigerated warehouse.

The man’s face and body started to turn black, Funeral Board records show. An employee testified at the hearing that staff had to spray Febreze in the room to get rid of the odor long enough for his family to view him, transcripts show.

That staff member, who is no longer with La Paloma, and the man’s family declined comment.

La Paloma staff said the only two decomposing bodies came to the facility in that condition.

The board decided against revoking the licenses of Bowen, his subordinates and the funeral home and instead fined La Paloma $80,000 — $5,000 for each of 16 unrefrigerated bodies found during the investigation.

The fine was by far the largest issued by the Funeral Board since 2010, Kandt said.

The state also required La Paloma to reimburse about $85,000 in legal costs the attorney general incurred in prosecuting the case against one of its employees. La Paloma paid the fine and fees but is appealing the legal costs in District Court to press for a detailed breakdown of the charges.

Funeral Board members debated whether Bowen could properly run La Paloma while holding his state job.

Funeral Board member Brian Rebman suggested a lesser penalty if Bowen quit his job with the attorney general’s office, but board member Christopher Naylor rejected that idea, the transcript shows.

Bowen, who works four, 10-hour days per week for the attorney general, told the board he conducts La Paloma business mostly on weekends and outside his state work hours.

Outside work

Nevada state employees who work outside jobs must receive approval from their supervisors and certify the work does not conflict with their government duties.

Staff members in Laxalt’s office and prior administrations approved Bowen’s outside work requests from 2008 to 2015 despite the potential conflict. But Bowen’s requests did not disclose that he was La Paloma’s managing funeral director — the top leader — at the Longley Lane facility in the recent disclosures the Review-Journal obtained.

On his 2015 outside work form, Bowen said he was a La Paloma partner, kept the books, sometimes transported bodies and did “general oversight” for the Reno facility. He also noted on the form that a full-time staff manages the funeral home’s day-to-day operations.

“In no way do I feel this activity conflicts with my current job duties,” he wrote. “I would like to express that I remain dedicated to the Nevada Attorney General’s Office and the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which will remain my top priority.”

The division chief who approved Bowen’s second job in 2015 said the extra work was not hampering Bowen’s performance and that his work exceeded standards.

Bowen did not return calls seeking an interview. He wrote in an email that the failure to file a request in 2016 was an oversight as he moved between divisions. He said he was disciplined for the error in April.

Bowen said he did not see a conflict between his job with the attorney general’s office and his mortuary business. He notified his supervisors immediately after the Funeral Board investigation started in January.

“At no time has the Attorney General’s Office provided me preferential treatment based on my status as a current employee,” he wrote in the email. Bowen is now just an investor in the businesses, funeral home spokesman Hardy said.

Even after the Funeral Board sanction, Bowen’s current supervisor appeared ready to approve his outside work, Bowen said in an email to staff in July.

“We discussed the request and Chief (Roland) Swanson stated he saw no conflict,” Bowen wrote to an administrative assistant. Swanson did not return requests for comment.

Herzik, of the University of Nevada, Reno, said the attorney general’s office was lax in its oversight.

“You’ve been in a sense prosecuted by the agency for whom you work and they’re not seeing a conflict,” Herzik said. “If they would have checked with the Funeral Board, they would have found out he’s not just driving bodies on the weekends but he’s the funeral director.”

Three weeks after Bowen’s optimistic email, First Deputy Attorney General Wes Duncan, identified the conflict and denied the request, issuing a memo about problems with the outside work.

Duncan, a former assemblyman who recently left Laxalt’s office to run for the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2018, declined to comment, saying his July 27 letter speaks for itself. The memo also noted Bowen’s failure to file accurate paperwork was a major problem.

“Since an employee’s request for outside employment must be renewed annually, your previous inattention to this requirement raises an additional concern about the ability of this office to monitor your outside employment activities over the long term,” he wrote.

Contact Arthur Kane at Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter.

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