LAS VEGAS (AP) - It's worth $1,350 to visit Pahrump, and up to $350 an hour to represent the Colorado River Commission in legal matters. At least, those are the amounts Nevada state agencies agreed to pay certain former employees the agencies rehired as consultants.
The rates are from contracts obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal under Nevada's open records law after a state audit raised questions about the wisdom and fiscal responsibility of paying such amounts. The contracts show that a number of former state employees were well-paid part-timers for agencies where they had formerly worked full time. Some worked for state agencies other than the ones that previously employed them, but got higher rates for similar work.
The highest pay stipulated in any of the contracts was $350 an hour from the Colorado River Commission to one of its former managers, James H. Davenport.
But a CRC executive said that Davenport never actually got that much. Jim Salo, the agency's deputy executive director, said $350 an hour was an alternate rate that could have been paid under special circumstances such as an unusually heavy amount of work, or tasks assigned to Davenport that weren't contemplated in his contract. But the alternate rate was never used, he said.
Davenport's usual pay was $10,000 a month "not to exceed $500,000" over the three-year term of the contract, which ended in June 2009. Then the contract was amended to pay only $5,000 a month. Davenport was described as an expert in water law, and his duties in the latest contract are to provide legal advice and representation on water and natural resource issues as assigned.
"Just as a sanity check on ourselves," Salo said, "we looked at the hours he reported working those months (covered by the Davenport contracts) and divided them into the amount he was paid. It came out to just under $190 an hour."
Davenport's contract expires in June and probably won't be renewed, Salo said, but not because of the audit. "We were already in discussions when we first heard about the audit, because the need for the kind of services he provided has become less frequent, and we will be able to rely on in-house attorneys."
The commission also has an active $210-per-hour contract with Sara Price, a former deputy attorney general, and expects to renew it. Price serves as a consultant on the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, which is supposed to keep the river habitable for certain rare fish and birds.
"She had worked on that program as an employee of the attorney general's office, was instrumental in negotiating it, going back to Congress to get legislation passed so all the entities involved would pay their share of the expense, and now we're implementing it. ... There are regular meetings, and she attends to keep our oar in the water."
According to the audit, the CRC spent $329,649 in two fiscal years on the two contracts. Salo said that during the calendar year 2010, Davenport was paid $60,000 and Price $22,438, not counting expense reimbursement.
The audit was done by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau as part of an ongoing attempt by the Legislature to achieve better oversight of consultant contracts, and was released in December.
At least one contractor billed for 25 hours' work in one day, according to the audit. It also mentioned that some state agencies had no system to assure that their employees, who held contracts to work for other state agencies on their own time, were not doing it on the clock at their regular jobs.
State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, asked that the report be turned over to the Nevada attorney general for possible criminal prosecution of contract cheaters.
A reresentative for the attorney general confirmed the office has received it but would not say whether anybody has done anything about it or will.
Leslie said she expects new laws tightening contract procedures to be introduced in the Legislature.
State contracts are approved by the state Board of Examiners, which consists of the governor, the attorney general, and the secretary of state, but don't necessarily get close scrutiny there. Andrew Clinger, state budget director, said in December that he and other agency directors would devise a better system to oversee contracts, but didn't return phone calls asking how the task was progressing.
Auditors identified 111 current and former employees who also worked for the state as independent contractors and found that the contracts of 51, with 14 agencies, outlined duties similar to their full-time state jobs. The audit identified the agencies involved, said they paid $2.3 million to the 51 during fiscal years 2008 and 2009, but didn't identify employees by name or job. The Review-Journal obtained their contracts from the individual agencies.
Of the 51 employees, the audit said 16 worked for the Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services, and were paid $1.3 million - more than half the $2.3 million. Harold Cook, administrator of that division, told the Review-Journal that only two of the 16 were still employed by the state while also under contract. One of those, osteopath Dr. Lorrie Oksenholt of Sparks, works full time for the Dini-Townsend Hospital in Sparks.
Because Lake's Crossing Center For the Mentally Disordered, also in Sparks, has no medical doctor, Oksenholt was hired to provide basic services at $150 per physical and $40 per patient treated, with payments not to exceed $61,750 in the two-year contract term.
Psychiatrist Dr. Charles G. Mahakian, who worked for the Department of Corrections, was similarly contracted to provide psychiatric services at Desert Regional Center in Las Vegas, at $120 an hour up to $63,360 over three years.
However, the audit noted that six psychiatrists who had consulting contracts with the state at $135 an hour were former employees of the state, which pays full-time psychiatrists less - $89 to $100 per hour.
One contract examined by the Review-Journal, with a psychiatrist who served as needed at Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, was paid only $110 an hour, but he could earn as much as $540,000 over the two-year contract. Although the contract was labeled part-time, that maximum is more than could be earned working 40-hour weeks at the stated pay, and the same anomaly occurred in other contracts of the agency.
Dr. Harold Cook, administrator of the Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services, said that because the agency can't predict how much part-time personnel will actually work, it sometimes sets the contract limit at the amount a person could earn working full-time at the higher part-time rate. But he couldn't explain why any contract should have a maximum even higher.
The paperwork on the mental health services contract said the part-time hire was necessary because 30 percent of its authorized positions were vacant.
Besides medical fees, another contract called for paying $60 an hour travel time to a Reno psychiatrist who would visit rural mental health centers.
Travel also could be expensive when billed to other agencies. A Reno psychologist hired by the Department of Public Safety's parole and probation division, to make psychosexual evaluations of prisoners, was to be paid $950 per evaluation, and $255 an hour for testifying in court. She would get another $1,350 per trip if those duties required her to go to Pahrump. A trip to Ely, site of the state's maximum security prison, cost $1,100; Pioche cost $1,300 and Las Vegas $1,000.
Although the potential expense was high, the audit said that division paid employees and former employees only $39,508 as consultants during fiscal years 2008 and 2009. The audit also pointed out that the same department contracted with some former employees at rates that probably saved taxpayers money; for instance, a former law enforcement captain conducted training for $31 an hour.
The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had a contract with Roland Westergard, who retired in 1990 as state engineer for the Nevada Division of Water Resources. Westergard gets $200 an hour as chief negotiator on the Truckee River Operating Agreement among Nevada, California, the U.S. government, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. Christine Thiel, a former deputy state engineer, is paid $150 an hour as a negotiator. Both are paid from a federal grant, rather than state general funds.
"They were the state engineer and deputy engineer all during the years this very important agreement was being devised," said Kay Sherer, deputy director of the department. "Not just any engineer or hydrologist or lawyer could fill these roles, we have to have the best. We believe we have them, and we plan to keep these contracts in force."
Thiel got $27,862 and Westergard $48,161 for their help during the two fiscal years covered by the audit, said Bob Conrad, public information officer for the department.
"The rate paid Nevada's negotiators is likely among the lowest rates paid to any representative at the negotiating table," he added.