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Board violated state laws, audit says

Chiropractic panel members met in secret and were slow to address complaints, the findings show.

March 26, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The state board overseeing chiropractors has dragged its heels on consumer complaints, violated open meeting laws and taken other inappropriate actions because members, who include political appointees with close ties to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, did not understand their role, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) suggested that the state attorney general look into possible violations of state law, and said that the governor should consider removing those who have been part of the problem. The senator co-chaired legislative hearings last year on allegations of misconduct by the board.

Lawmakers ordered state Auditor Elaine M. Howle to review the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners. Reports in The Times and elsewhere revealed that Schwarzenegger had appointed friends with little consumer-protection experience whose actions were controversial.

The governor's appointees to the seven-member panel include board secretary Francesco Columbu, a chiropractor who was best man at Schwarzenegger's wedding, and Richard H. Tyler, who greeted Schwarzenegger at the airport when he first arrived in the United States and for some time was his chiropractor. Tyler chaired the board for most of 2007.

The panel's primary purpose is to protect Californians from incompetence or fraud in chiropractic care, according to its mission statement. But asked last year about the board's troubles, Schwarzenegger said: "What is important to us is: Does the chiropractic board represent the chiropractors?"

Auditors said that although the board's regulations required it to establish quality review panels, it has never done so. And the panel has been too slow to address consumer complaints of misconduct by chiropractors, the 115-page audit said.

"The chiropractic board's handling of complaints is so flawed that it fails to promptly process its most serious complaints -- those it defines as having priority," Howle wrote to the governor and Legislature. Of 11 priority complaints reviewed by auditors, nine took from one to three years to process.

And in an action that auditors found "glaringly inappropriate," the board failed to give required written notice to its executive officer of an impending closed-session meeting about her employment. The board "fired her during a closed-session meeting, and then failed to disclose the action when reconvening the public meeting," the audit found.

The Times reported last year that the board had ejected from at least one meeting its own state-appointed attorney, Jana Tuton, who had questioned the legality of some of its actions.

And e-mails among board members concerning board matters raised questions about whether business was being conducted in secret, in violation of California's open-meetings law.

The audit found that "board members' lack of understanding about state laws related to their responsibilities . . . resulted in some violations of state law and other inappropriate actions." The board inappropriately delegated to its staff the responsibility to approve or deny licenses, auditors said.

And the board did not ensure that staff members with decision-making authority properly disclosed potential conflicts of interest. Among 16 board and staff members serving in 2005, 2006 and 2007, eight did not complete the economic interest disclosure forms correctly, nine filed their forms late and two did not file at all, the audit found.

Ridley-Thomas called the findings "very, very troubling" and said: "If I were governor, I would not allow any commissioners to continually embarrass me in this fashion."

The audit covers the two years ending June 30, 2007. Current board Chairman Frederick Lerner said some corrective steps have been taken.

"The board began working to address many of these issues even before the audit began," Lerner said in a prepared statement. "It was the need to correct these issues that led us to seek a new direction, with a new executive officer, last summer."

Executive Officer Brian Stiger said board members have had training on open-meeting laws, and efforts to improve the handling of complaints are "well underway." Other audit recommendations will be acted on in the future, he said.

In a letter to the board Tuesday, Schwarzenegger said the audit marks progress but "additional improvement is needed" in some areas.

"The board's highest priority must be actions to achieve the highest level of consumer protection and professional education," he wrote.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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