Snake in the Grass
It's not often that I come across a courageous state bureaucrat who's willing to risk everything to expose high-level corruption.
That is, to do the right thing.
This is the tale of one such employee who was rewarded for her valor by being fired from her post as executive director of an obscure regulatory board that licenses 370 nursing home administrators and 2,376 assisted-living-facility managers across the state.
Victoria Martin didn't alert me to the overwhelming problems she faced as the executive director of the Board of Examiners of Nursing Care Institution Administrators and Assisted Living Facility Managers.
I called Martin after receiving a tip in early 2004 that one of the members of the NCIA board that oversaw Martin and her four-member staff had not disclosed a felony arrest on her board application to the governor.
The board member in question, Connie Thompson, was (and is) married to then-state Representative Mark Thompson. The fact that the Thompsons' company, Tempe-based Adult Care Consultants, is the largest assisted-living facility referral agency in the state further piqued my interest. I wondered whether the Thompsons were using their respective positions as a regulator and legislator to benefit their business.
As it turned out, they were -- as I documented last year in two columns ("Dangerous Duo," March 4, and "Blast From the Past," March 25). It was Martin who first disclosed the Thompsons' unsavory behavior.
The NCIA has a crucial mission to ensure that people running nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are qualified to properly take care of society's most vulnerable citizens.
As is typical in this tightwad state, the NCIA is severely hamstrung by scant funding. Its $370,000 annual budget comes entirely from licensing fees collected from nursing home administrators and assisted-living-facility managers.
The stingy budget severely affects the board's ability to regulate the rapidly growing industry. In addition to the executive director, the NCIA regulatory staff includes a licensing manager, a business manager, an office manager, and two part-time investigators.
Incredibly, the Arizona Legislature requires the NCIA board to kick back 10 percent of the licensing money it collects to the state general fund and 100 percent of all funds from civil penalties. This further hampers the board's ability to do its job.
It's obvious that the state doesn't want to hamper business by imposing tight regulations -- even if it means the elderly will be exploited. The only reason the state created the NCIA board was to comply with federal Medicaid regulations that require states to provide oversight of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in exchange for federal dollars.
Arizona receives a whopping $800 million a year from the feds to help pay the expenses of the elderly living in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. It's outrageous that Arizona fails to make sure this taxpayer money is properly spent and not siphoned off by unscrupulous vultures preying on the old and infirm.
It's ridiculous to expect that a cash-starved regulatory agency with five full-time employees charged with regulating nearly 3,000 people can do anything more than rubber-stamp applications and conduct a handful of investigations of the most notorious operations.
But Victoria Martin decided to give doing the right thing -- instead of taking the path of least resistance -- a shot anyway.
A longtime public servant who has worked as a hearing officer and assistant attorney general, Martin was hired by the board in July 2002 and was immediately faced with the near-impossible task of stabilizing the overwhelmed agency that was in complete turmoil.
The NCIA staff had gone through four executive directors in five years. It was way behind in processing license applications. Complaints were not being investigated. Employee turnover was sky high.
Martin's immediate predecessor had quit coming to work and left about $50,000 in license-fee renewal checks stashed in the agency's file cabinets. Martin requested the state's General Accounting Office to audit the board's finances and determine whether any money was missing.
After a cursory inspection, the GAO rejected her request, stating it could not undertake "the expense of a more extensive audit." The GAO's lack of interest in the board's financial problems in 2002 is important, as we shall see.
Six months into her tenure, Martin tells me she became concerned with the activities of board member Connie Thompson. Martin says she received information from industry sources alleging Thompson had a conflict of interest because she was overseeing regulations that directly affected her business.
An NCIA investigator also conducted a taped interview with an assisted-living facility manager who claimed that for a cash payment Mark Thompson had guaranteed that the facility would pass all zoning and state health department inspections.
The AG's Office conducted a preliminary criminal investigation that fall, but declined to expand the probe. The office, however, turned up a crucial fact: Connie Thompson had lied on her board application by failing to disclose a 1982 felony arrest for obstructing a first-degree-murder investigation.
This was a bombshell that further fueled Martin's concerns about Connie Thompson. By early 2004, Martin and Connie Thompson were locked in a bitter feud, and the board was in turmoil.
Connie Thompson launched a counterattack in January 2004. She began complaining to the GAO, legislative leaders and the Governor's Office about Martin's administrative performance and about minor financial problems involving procurement and travel expenses.
Unlike in 2002 when Martin asked for the GAO's help, Connie Thompson's complaints received immediate attention. The GAO launched what became a 12-month audit that cost more than $130,000.
It's obvious that GAO started the investigation so as not to anger then-Representative Mark Thompson, who sat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and could make life miserable for the GAO.
The Thompsons declined my request for an interview.
Outraged over Connie Thompson's actions, the NCIA board demanded that she resign in February 2004. The board accused Thompson of "inappropriate conduct" and "using [her] Board membership to promote personal interests."
Thompson refused. GAO records I obtained show she stayed in close contact with GAO auditors through the spring. This was a crucial time period. The Legislature was debating a bill on whether to terminate the NCIA or extend it for another 10 years. Connie Thompson wanted the NCIA killed, and its duties transferred to the state Department of Health Services.
In April 2004, the Legislature passed a bill extending the board another decade. The legislation was awaiting Governor Janet Napolitano's signature, when Connie Thompson struck again. This time she used the East Valley Tribune to convey her overblown story that Martin was grossly mishandling the board's investigations and finances.
The thinly reported story posing as an exposé alarmed Napolitano, who vetoed the bill extending the life of the board. Napolitano recommended that the state auditor general conduct an audit of the board. The governor and the Legislature later agreed to a one-year extension of the board through July 1, 2005.
Soon after Napolitano vetoed the bill, Connie Thompson finally resigned from the NCIA board, knowing her witch hunt was well under way.
By the summer of 2004, the NCIA was being picked apart by two state auditors. Rarely, if ever, has the state subjected such a tiny regulatory agency to such scrutiny. The audits cost almost as much as the board's budget.
"It made it difficult literally to get anything done," says board president Michele Donohue.
And what did the audits discover?
They found no missing money. No malfeasance of office. No misappropriation of funds. What they did turn up were some minor issues involving procurement, and about $1,600 in possibly excessive travel claims.
The audits also "discovered" information that was already known to Martin and board members: Investigations weren't being completed in a timely manner, and office procedures needed to be improved. The solution to both problems was additional funding, something the Legislature refuses to provide.
Despite the tepid findings, Connie Thompson had the audacity to demand in memos to legislators that Martin be fired.
Even though Mark Thompson had been defeated in his November 2004 reelection bid, legislative leaders made it abundantly clear during a January 24 Senate Health Committee hearing, which I attended, that Martin had to go.
On January 28, the board fired Victoria Martin without comment.
"We are simply moving in a different direction," Donohue says.
Connie Thompson is also moving in a new direction.
She's filed a $1 million libel and slander lawsuit against the NCIA board, the state, and Victoria Martin. In the suit, Thompson seeks an order reinstating her to the NCIA board.
Here's the bottom line on all this: It's disgraceful that neither the governor nor the Legislature had the guts to stand up to Connie Thompson. Not only did she hide her 1982 felony arrest, but she also failed to disclose on her board application that she had been cited in 1997 by the state Board of Nursing for practicing without a license.
Victoria Martin, meanwhile, did the right thing by raising questions about Connie Thompson's self-serving and devious actions. Martin deserved a raise and commendation, not a kick to the curb.
Now, predictably, the state has created the worst possible situation.
Martin predicts more turmoil.
"Who would want that job now?" she asks.
Maybe a self-serving snake like Connie Thompson.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 602-229-8445.
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