LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Should whistleblower reports be made public? That is the question being asked in Washington and in the Las Vegas valley right now. Two very serious whistleblower complaints have been filed by employees of the Southern Nevada Health District. In both cases, employees say they were threatened by health district officials, to cover up evidence of wrongdoing.
Currently, there are laws to protect whistleblowers because that is considered essential to the integrity of government: Federal, state, and local. But sometimes the process can also be used to stifle transparency.
The two complaints filed against the Southern Nevada Health District raise very serious questions about the public’s right to know.
Among the most important jobs for the health district is its program to identify, monitor, and assist locals who have HIV or Aids. But how many cases are there?
Last December, a district epidemiologist, Arthuro Mehretu, tried to find out. Mehretu told his manager he’d received information that a 100 or more fake patients had been purposely entered into the system, and that the files may contain hundreds of other ghost patients, or cases that had never been properly documetned. When Mehretu asked for permission to investigate, he was told no.
One key concern is money. The district gets paid up to $15,000 for each confirmed HIV patient.
The money comes from federal health programs. A string of emails went back and forth between Mehretu and health district managers over the following months, and from that point on, he alleges, he was a marked man.
Mehretu’s job duties were changed, and at the same time, a district manager reached out to state officials about the issue. A state health official told the district the concern was legitimate, and that many individual HIV cases could very likely be unproven.
In July, a closed-door hearing was held on a whistleblower complaint filed by Mehretu. At the hearing, the document shows, Human Resources Director Amy Hagen testified that she had been told by Chief Health Officer Dr. Joseph Iser to find a way to terminate Mehretu.
When Hagen left the hearing, she was in tears. At the same hearing, the health district argued that it is not subject to Nevada’s ‘whistleblower law,’ because it has its own policy, as authorized in 2016 by Dr. Joe Iser.
The hearing officer rejected that argument but ruled against the whistleblower, in part because the underlying complaint — the one alleging a problem with the HIV numbers — was never entered into evidence. It remains sealed, unavailable to the hearing officer, the public, even to the board of health.
Are the HIV numbers legit?
The I-Team learned Iser hired a private law firm to investigate the claims quietly. The contract doesn’t specify what the assignment was, but the district paid $35,000of public money for the work.
Whatever was uncovered has been deemed confidential and off-limits.
Dr. Iser, who earns more than $300,000 a year, is no stranger to employee complaints. As 8 News NOW has documented in past reports, Iser is often a no show at work. His primary residence is also in San Francisco, which means his office and parking space are often vacant.
With a nudge from the health board, Iser announced he will leave the district next year. That decision has led to a second whistleblower complaint filed by a woman who’s an administrative assistant. She alleged that she was ordered by Dr. Iser to create two non-profit organizations, that could be places where he could land once his job ended at SNHD.
The employee reportedly felt Iser was using public resources for his own benefit. She refused to go along, and that’s when she allegedly was targeted for termination. The H.R. Director Amy Hagen has reportedly testified she was told by Iser to fire the second whistleblower as well.
These two cases are not finished, and there are other complaints pending, including a lawsuit filed in May, alleging, among other things, that a staff member was ordered by Dr. Iser to compile a profile of every health district employee. The profile is to include personal information, including their age, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
When the I-Team asked for a copy of the secret investigation, they were told it’s confidential, and that it’s a lawyer-client confidentiality situation. As for the whistleblower complaints, the district says it can’t comment because it considers those hearings to be personnel issues.