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.

Alarmed over this, Martin made a bold and risky decision. She asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate one of her own board members.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty