I-Team: Head of health district’s frequent absences raise questions

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Southern Nevada’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Joe Iser is a man on the move. His employees have complained for years that Iser shows up for work only one or two days per week. But Iser says, as long as his cell phone is on, it means he’s on the clock.

But if he’s not at work, where is he? As the I-Team found out, Joe Iser took a cue from singer Tony Bennett, and left his heart in San Francisco.

Anyone who’s tried to leave town on a busy weekend knows that airport parking is often a challenge, but not if you have a government-issued key card and parking sticker. The pass allows access to the closest, most coveted prime parking spots at McCarran International Airport. The permits are supposed to be used for official business, but no one really checks. The I-Team did.

From May 2017 until May of this year, Chief Health Officer Dr. Joe Iser swiped his airport parking card 60 times, which means he took 30 out of town trips, averaging more than two per month. That’s a lot of official traveling.

McCarran can’t tell the I-Team the dates of Iser’s trips or how long he was gone, but anyone who travels between Las Vegas and the Bay area may have encountered the avuncular health chief. Iser’s employees have captured several airport snapshots of their boss going to or from California. The Oakland airport in late August, for instance, and again in September, and then at the end of May there was a four-day trip to San Francisco.

“We had heard he is living up in San Francisco and that he was spending four days a week, sometimes up to four days a week in San Francisco,” said whistleblower B.

Health district employees and whistleblowers are well aware of Dr. Iser’s absences. They’ve complained about it in employee surveys, even in health board meetings, meetings which Iser sometimes skips altogether.  With the exception of County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, the board members don’t seem to care whether Iser comes to work or not.

Last year, the I-team started checking Iser’s designated parking spot at the health district and found that, over the course of several weeks, his vehicle was absent about 30 percent of the time. Iser is paid $316,000 dollars per year in salary and benefits to serve as chief health officer, but his heart, it appears, is in San Francisco.

He’s owned a home there worth nearly $2 million since 1993. He’s told his three previous employers that San Francisco is his home base, that his family lives there.

Since the I-Team stories last year, Iser has given his health district parking spot to his secretary making it tougher to figure out when he’s working and when he isn’t. Employees say his staff take other steps to cover his absences.

“She opens and closes the doors and turns on the lights on and off to make it look like he’s there,” said whistleblower A.

The I-Team asked Iser about his time away from Las Vegas last year. Here were his responses.

Receipts obtained from the health district show the public paid for many of Iser’s Bay area jaunts in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Iser has repeatedly told his staff that it doesn’t matter where he is at any given moment. So long as his cell phone is on, he’s working and is on the clock. Iser once again declined the 8 News NOW’s requests for an interview.

The board of health has largely ignored the information about Dr. Iser’s frequent absences, even though the I-Team’s story which documented it earned an Emmy award a few weeks ago in the category of government reporting.

Why does Dr. Iser need an airport parking pass at all? The I-Team asked the health district and were told it’s so he can access the airport in the event off a health emergency.  This is the health district’s full statement.

“The Southern Nevada Health District ‘s Chief Health Officer as well as division directors, administrative staff, staff from the Office of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance, and Environmental Health Division staff have access badges to McCarran International Airport so they may have entry to the airport in the event of a public health emergency. The badge access also allows Environmental Health Division members to perform their routine inspections as well as respond to complaints.” 

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