Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 11:05 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- Attorney General Brian Sandoval said Thursday his office is reviewing a backlog of disciplinary cases before state boards that regulate various professions to ensure none of the cases poses a risk to the public.
Sandoval released a Sept. 17 memo that estimated a backlog of 98 cases before five of the dozens of boards and commissions that hire the attorney general's office to represent them.
Sandoval said his office is double checking each case to make sure there is no "egregious" misconduct by a licensee that would cause risk to the public.
Keith Marcher, the senior deputy attorney general in charge of representing the boards, said quick action can be taken to suspend the license of any person who is accused of being a risk to the public.
Marcher cited the case of a male nurse at Carson-Tahoe Hospital who was accused of sexually molesting patients. His license was suspended shortly after he was arrested, Marcher said. The nurse later surrendered his license without fighting the disciplinary action.
This backlog of disciplinary cases became public Tuesday, when Sandoval told the state Board of Examiners, "There are several boards out there that do not have the ability to pay. Some were holding back disciplinary issues because they don't have the ability to pay."
He based his statement on the Sept. 17 memo written by Marcher.
Sandoval added, however, that his office would continue to represent the boards even if they could not pay the tab.
The Legislature and the administration of Gov. Kenny Guinn directed the attorney general's office to raise the rate it charges for attorneys from $78 an hour to $91.48. Marcher said that raised concern among the boards that they would be unable to pay the tab with their limited budget.
The regulatory boards are supported by fees they charge those who are licensed, which are paid every two years. Some small boards area able to afford only a part-time staff member.
Marcher wrote a memo Sept. 17, saying he gathered some information from his lawyers and board officials.
For instance, the state Board of Examiners for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counsels has $16,000 budget for legal expenses for this fiscal year. This board licenses and regulates 1,100 members but has only one staff member.
Marcher said the board meets six to eight times a year and has a backlog of 28 disciplinary cases. He estimated the board would owe the attorney general's office $57,000 to handle these cases while it has only $16,000 in the budget.
Sandoval has said his lawyers will represent the boards in disciplinary cases, no matter what the cost. "We will be here to defend them to the end," he said. Lawyers for those accused of misconduct now think they can "bankrupt" a regulatory board by drawing out the process, he said.
With his new policy defense lawyers "won't be able to bankrupt the boards," Sandoval said.
The attorney general initially refused to release the list of boards that have backlogs, saying this was a privilege between attorney and the client.
The Sun asked him to make public the list on grounds they were covered by the open records law.
The Marcher memo said the state chiropractic physicians board has $42,500 for legal expenses for this fiscal year. The board owes the attorney general's office $37,000 and was recently billed another $20,000. He said it has a current backlog of 20 disciplinary cases. Using an estimate of 20 hours for each case, the board would owe an additional $45,300, Marcher estimated.
Dr. Clyde Porter, a member of the chiropractic physicians board, said there was no backlog of cases. He said the problem arises with attorneys who keep delaying the proceedings. In one case, he said, the board had to take a three-hour break in the middle of a hearing to allow the defense attorney a "church break."
The state Board of Examiners Tuesday allowed Sandoval's office to write off $47,947 owed by the state Board of Nursing. The nursing board had a contract with the attorney general's office that capped legal fees.
Sandoval said that contract was written by former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa and he would not approve any more of those agreements to limit the amount. The Nursing Board decided to hire its own lawyer at a cheaper rate, rather than continue with the attorney general's office.
The examiners board also allowed Sandoval's office to write off $13,618 owed by the state Board of Homeopathic Medical Examiners, which regulates about 30 homeopathic physicians. The board, according to the Marcher memo, budgets $3,000 for legal expenses and has two open disciplinary cases. The board would owe $8,000 to handle these cases plus there would be other costs for legal work.
The attorney general's office said the state Board of Dispensing Opticians has a budget of $11,000 for legal expenses this fiscal year and has already paid $5,000 for work on regulation. It has 22 current disciplinary cases and would owe $46,000 under the current formula.
The board of examiners for social workers has $30,000 for legal expenses but has a current backlog of 40 disciplinary cases, according to the attorney general's office. It would owe $80,000 for taking care these cases.
Marcher said in contested disciplinary cases, the shortest time to resolve the cases is six months, but they can drag on. He added, however, "These cases will be prosecuted."
Sandoval said his new policy will cause a deficit in his office this fiscal year and next in the area of board representation. But he said he will deal with that at the 2005 Legislature.
One possibility, he said is asking the Interim Finance Committee for more money to hire investigators and lawyers to represent these board.
Another possible long-term solution is to allow the boards to hire more investigators to help the lawyers with the cases, he said. Or the administrative functions of these boards could be consolidated so there would be services available to all of them.