State audit reveals veterinarians don't undergo background checks

State audit reveals veterinarians don't undergo background checks »Play Video
Dr. Dan Koller helped establish low-cost Companion Pet Clinics across the region. The Oregon vet board spent years investigating him for various complaints. It revoked his license in 2010.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- On a summer day in Portland in 1999, a veterinarian known for his clinic's colorful window decorations got into a heated argument with one of his surgical assistants and, according to court documents, punched her in the face.

Dr. Sonny Randhawa was arrested May 16, 1999 in connection with that argument and was convicted of assault four months later.

But when Randhawa completed his license renewal application with the Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board (OVMEB) the following year, he checked "no" in the box asking whether he had ever been convicted of a crime. He continued to check the "no" box for 13 years and nobody questioned it.

Veterinarians applying for a license to practice in Oregon are not required to undergo criminal background checks - one of only three health professional groups in the state that escapes this kind of scrutiny. Occupational Therapy and Speech Pathology and Audiology are the other two groups. Those three groups are trusted by their regulatory boards, if they have one, to tell the truth about their criminal backgrounds.

In 2010, the Oregon legislature gave all Oregon medical boards the authority to conduct fingerprint-based criminal background checks, but representatives from the speech pathology and occupational therapy boards told the On Your Side Investigators that the legislative fiscal office denied their requests for more money to hire a part-time staff member to perform those background checks.

It means, unless someone tips off the state, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and veterinarians can hide their questionable baggage – unless they’re hired by an employer that requires them.

A Oregon secretary of state audit of the state’s health professional groups, published in March, highlighted that past criminal incidents in these professions could compromise licensees’ ability to perform their jobs and put the public at risk.

"Veterinarians have prescribing power and access to medications that are at risk for misuse," the audit states. "In contrast, pharmacists, who also have access to medications, undergo criminal background checks for both initial and renewal licensure."

The audit recommends the three named health licensing boards reconsider the use of criminal background checks of licensees to protect consumers.

Both the speech pathology and occupational therapy boards tell KATU they are again asking for money from the state Legislature to hire a part-time staff member to perform background checks.

Compared to other states in the Northwest, Oregon is an outlier. KATU discovered Washington, California and Idaho all require that veterinarians undergo criminal background checks.

Investigating Dr. Koller

For Dorinda O'Keeffe, one trip to the vet with her Rottweiler Sammy, 12 years ago, is still seared in her mind.

"I was shocked. I was really scared, really scared. I felt really unsafe," O'Keeffe said.

"(The vet) picked her up, literally turned her over and slammed her on the ground," she explained, "because he said she tried to bite him when he was reaching for her."

The vet was Dr. Dan Koller, a man who became notorious in the vet community.

Koller first got his license to practice as a veterinarian in Oregon and California in 1974 but three years later, in 1977, a California judge sentenced Koller to 100 days in jail for brutalizing a dog and letting an unlicensed vet student perform a hysterectomy on a cat.

California revoked Koller's license in 1979 for animal cruelty and violating professional standards. Koller denied the allegations. Koller ran afoul of that state's veterinary authorities again in 2001, when he was found to have injected himself with a small animal anesthetic.

In Oregon, Koller helped establish low-cost Companion Pet Clinics across the region.

Oregon's vet board spent years investigating Koller for various complaints but he always fought back and maintained his license.

In 2008, the Oregon vet board filed its intention to revoke Koller's license, one week after it issued an emergency suspension of his license. Those actions followed a psychiatric evaluation that showed Koller abused drugs and suffered from an anti-social condition.

In 2004, Portland attorney Susan Ford Burns filed a 79-page complaint with the veterinary board on behalf of Koller's former front-office manager, Maureena Schmaing, and an unnamed animal welfare advocate.

The document accused Koller of beating, kicking and throwing cats and dogs; failing to diagnose ailments that left animals dead; letting unlicensed technicians anesthetize animals without supervision; and euthanizing pets - at the request of owners - for maladies as treatable as fleas.

Again, Koller denied the allegations and investigators found insufficient evidence to cite him for harming animals. He was fined $2,000 for failing to advise clients of follow-up treatment and failing to maintain adequate patient records.

After several more years of tangling with Koller, the Oregon vet board revoked his license in 2010.

"Something was seriously wrong with that man," animal law attorney Geordie Duckler said.

Duckler represented a woman in a 2004 lawsuit where she claimed Koller threatened to kill her cat if she did not pay her vet bill. Duckler believes Dr. Koller is the poster child for why Oregon should run criminal background checks on veterinarians before they can be licensed in the state.

"Even if he was an aberration and no vet would do anything like that, and all the background checks reveal that really there's no more Dr. Koller's out there, still, why aren't we looking to make sure that that's true?" Duckler asked.

Why no criminal background checks?

However, the Oregon vet board and the state vet, Dr. Emilio DeBess, defend veterinarians and board practices. They provided KATU with examples of checks and balances they believe weed out criminal veterinary candidates.

"Only a very small percentage of Oregon veterinarians behave in violation of the Veterinary Practice Act, and when they do, we take action. Bad apples, squeaky wheels, etc.," Lori Makinen said, director of the OMVEB. "The majority of veterinarians chose this profession out of a deep concern for animals and a desire to make and keep them healthy."

Makinen declined to speak on camera but provided the following statement:

"For the most part, veterinary schools rigorously screen candidates not just for academic qualifications, but for character. Once admitted, a veterinary student must maintain grades and demonstrate appropriate conduct. ... When a veterinarian graduates and obtains a state license (including licenses in Canada and US territories), any disciplinary action taken against the licensee is reported to the American Association of Veterinary State Board's national disciplinary database, which is the Veterinary Information Verifying Agency (VIVA). VIVA collects and reports veterinary licensees' test scores, licensure in different jurisdictions, and discipline. When a veterinarian applies for any state license, a VIVA report is provided to the licensing jurisdiction, which may then act on any adverse information provided.

Since the statute that mandates confidentiality (ORS 676 http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/chapter/676) also exempts it for other enforcement agencies, state boards commonly communicate about potentially problematic situations. For example, if another state's veterinary board has disciplined an applicant for an Oregon license, I would be able to review more information than is available to the public. Veterinarians undergo a thorough screening for licensure under the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Board receives notification from the DEA if a licensee is suspected of noncompliance with drug laws. Similarly, pharmacists frequently contact the Board about questionable veterinary prescriptions.

Oregon veterinary applicants are required to disclose whether they have been charged, arrested or convicted of misdemeanors/felonies other than misdemeanor traffic violations. Failure to disclose, whether or not the information might preclude licensure, is a violation that may result in discipline up to and including suspension or revocation. Each year's renewal form also requires disclosure of relevant info not previously reported. Veterinarians are regularly rated by the public as among the three most highly trusted professions (teachers and nurses are the others). As a profession, veterinarians do not seem particularly inclined to criminal behavior. The Board has to this point been comfortable with the existing process."

Dr. DeBess added, "So by the time that individual actually asks for a license, we will have a lot of that information ahead of time."

DeBess is also a former member of the vet board but even he admits, more can be done, especially as it relates to Koller's past.

"Well I think the information that we got was through California, potentially, we could have found out about it," DeBess said.

Veterinarian Disciplinary Data

The On Your Side Investigators requested disciplinary records from OMVEB for the last three years. Those records reveal the board has disciplined a few dozen veterinarians and vet technicians during that time for things like using excessive force on an animal and not using accepted treatments.

The board investigated veterinarian Fred Robinson in June 2012 for two complaints concerning the treatment of a dog and horse. The following year, the board concluded Robinson handled both animals with "unreasonable force" and paid a fine of $2,000. Robinson's disciplinary records do not provide further details.

The board suspended Eric Raymond Webb's
veterinary license after he was convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII) in July 2010. The Board reinstated his license in February 2013 with conditions including access to all of Webb's probation materials like reports and substance abuse tests.  The Board also required that Webb provide monthly written progress reports and notify each prospective employer of the condition of his license.  Finally, the Board also required that Webb complete 30 hours of continuing education before his veterinary license was reinstated. The documents do not state the clinic where Webb worked.

After 23 years of practicing, the board revoked Donna Starita's veterinary license in January 2011 and fined her $1,000 for practicing while her license was suspended. While suspended, disciplinary records state, Starita continued to practice "energetic and spiritual healing of animals" while using the titles 'veterinarian' and 'doctor' on her website, advertising materials and receipts. Her actions also constituted unprofessional conduct, according to records.

Although Starita cannot practice as a licensed vet, records provide examples of the types of spiritual healing she could continue to perform, including chakra balancing, prayer and grace, and Reiki, to name a few examples. The Board also requires that Starita maintain a relationship with a licensed vet for regular exams and medical care for animals. Starita was fined $500.

Again, these are from the vet board's disciplinary records during the last three years.

In those records, KATU also flagged Randhawa, who happens to run a Companion Pet Clinic in the St. John's neighborhood in Portland.

Last year, the board fined Randhawa $500 for failing to mention on his license renewal application that he was convicted of assaulting one of his employees in 1999. According to documents the On Your Side Investigators uncovered, Randhawa checked "no" to the question of whether he had been arrested or convicted. He checked "no" from 2000 to the time he was caught in 2013.

A year earlier, the vet board suspended Randhawa’s license after he "admitted to the abuse of a controlled substance, hydrocodone," according to vet board documents.

On Dec. 4, 2012, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) notified the vet board that it executed an inspection of Randhawa's Portland clinic. The DEA database flagged Randhawa as "a top purchaser of hydrocodone in the state." Randhawa was unable to produce dispensing records and "admitted to the DEA that he had been ordering hydrocodone" that began as "pain control for an injury and was 'out of control.'"

The On Your Side Investigators learned, Randhawa surrendered his DEA license and all controlled substances at the clinic were confiscated. Randhawa is no longer allowed to have access to drugs while he is a practicing veterinarian.

According to the documents, the Board concluded that Randhawa's misuse of drugs posed a "serious risk to the public health and safety."

Makinen told KATU that Dr. Randhawa was removed from practice while he entered into treatment. He was monitored until the Board was satisfied he was safe to practice again without conditions. The Board lifted his suspension about 10 months later.

“I have always maintained by innocence”

Randhawa declined to comment on camera but provided the On Your Side Investigators with a statement:

"The criminal charge was a misdemeanor of the lowest degree. I have always maintained my innocence in this matter because of three people putting me somewhere else during the alleged incident. Two attorneys in Portland, years later said that this charge could be expunged, due to the plaintiff trying the same stunt on another person years later.

Lastly, years ago the boards renewal form used to say in the past 12 months have you been charged with a crime or something similar..I cannot recall the exact wording, but ... I made a mistake by not checking the box. The board didn't fine me for not checking the box for the past 15 years, but just for that particular year. 

I want you to know that being a veterinarian is not just a job to me. I am very passionate about helping pets and their owners heal."

When asked how much a criminal background check would have cost the OMVEB, DeBess believed it would be around $40 to $50 per licensee.

"If the risk is high and the cost is - whatever the cost may be, you should go ahead and go forward and do that," DeBess said.

Reconsidering background checks

Even if the Board does find out about a criminal record, it doesn't have to take action. According to OVMEB data, only four veterinarians have had their license suspended in the past 40 years and revocation - considered the most extreme discipline - is just about as uncommon. Only six veterinary licenses were revoked in the same 40 year timeframe.

That said, Makinen said two instances occurred which have moved the Board in the direction of conducting background checks.

Makinen explained that a veterinary student was expelled from college for good cause but managed to get reinstated, eventually graduated, and applied for a license.

“If had not received a 'tip' about this applicant, there would have been no grounds to restrict his license,” Makinen said.

The second occurrence involved an applicant who failed to disclose a history of arrests for violent behavior.

“Similarly, if another jurisdiction had not revealed its problems with the applicant, we would not have been able to mandate a competency evaluation to determine whether access to a veterinary license would present risk to the public or animals,” Makinen continued.

The vet board is meeting July 12 to reconsider implementing background checks.

That would be a relief to pet owners like O'Keeffe. She said Sammy died of old-age a few years ago but has since adopted a new dog, Ruby. O'Keeffe is more protective of Ruby, than ever.

"My eyes are wide open when I go into a vet's office now," O'Keeffe said. "I've seen what happened in the past and that's not going to happen to Ruby."

Oregon Vet Board meeting

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board meeting, which is open to the public, will be located at the Portland Community College Cascade Campus, Room 305. The meeting is set for July 12, a Saturday, and begins at 9 a.m.