Eye doctors’ group mooched off state optometry board for 7 years, audit finds
A state audit released Wednesday details how the Louisiana State Board of Optometry Examiners (LSBOE) allowed a private optometrist organization to use public resources for years in a potential violation of state law. Records from the board blame its former secretary for mingling state money with the private group’s funds and approving his own license without completing the required training.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report indicates that the LSBOE’s previous secretary-treasurer also served as executive director of the Optometry Association of Louisiana, a private professional group for eye doctors. The auditors found the association was essentially operating at the expense of the state board for nearly seven years by using the LSBOE’s office space and other resources without paying any rent or utilities.
The LSBOE, which is comprised of six members appointed by the governor, issues licenses to eye doctors of optometry, who are not medical physicians, and regulates all matters of the profession in Louisiana. The board is largely funded through licensing fees.
In trying to determine how much money the association might owe the board, an outside accounting firm found more than $400,000 in potential shared expenses.
Minutes and agendas from LSBOE meetings in 2021 identify Dr. James Sandefur of Oakdale as its secretary. Board members considered a resolution during an Oct. 29, 2021, executive session that called for his removal or resignation, but opinions were divided, according to the official minutes.
The resolution accused Sandefur of allowing the private Optometry Association to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars and essentially mooch off of the state Optometry Board to the point of the board nearly going broke.
“…Thousands of dollars of public money has been expended to support the expenses of private entities including salaries, rent, utilities and equipment of the Optometry Association of Louisiana (OAL);” the meeting minutes said, “and the OAL has been the chief beneficiary of the co-mingling of public and private funds and has a surplus of hundreds of thousands of dollars while the LSBOE was told in (sic) recent past by Dr. Sandefur that operational expenses of the LSBOE were exceeding revenues …”
The same resolution said Sandefur fraudulently approved his own state optometry license for at least seven years without completing the required continuing education, “deeming his license null and void.”
However, the resolution failed to pass in a 2-3 vote. Without recusing himself, Sandefur voted against revoking his own license and against kicking himself off the board.
Reached by phone Thursday, Sandefur disputed the audit’s findings and said he did nothing wrong during his time on the board. He said no officials have questioned him about the allegations in the audit report. Sandefur said he hasn’t practiced optometry since 2005 and willingly retired his license in 2021, adding that his retirement had nothing to do with the audit.
“I believe that finding is incorrect,” Sandefur said of the audit.
He directed further questions to LSBOE’s current secretary, Dr. Gary Avallone. Calls to the LSBOE Thursday morning were not immediately returned.
Minutes from the LSBOE December 2021 meeting show the board accepted the retirement of Sandefur’s license after the attempt to revoke it failed. Members also were made aware that the board was still paying $600 monthly rent plus utilities for an office in Oakdale that Sandefur was still using.
The Legislative Auditor’s report does not mention Sandefur by name but said the board’s secretary-treasurer spent a portion of his time on Optometry Association business while collecting a check solely from the state board. The LSBOE’s 2021 budget included a 50% reduction in the secretary-treasurer’s salary from $30,000 to $15,000 because the board expected the Optometry Association would cover half of the compensation. However, the LSBOE continued paying the full salary through August 2021 and did not require Sandefur to keep time and attendance records.
Auditors also found, for the second consecutive year, the LSBOE lacked proper controls over its nonpayroll disbursements, fee collections and bank reconciliations because the same individual who had access to checks also had the ability to post to the board’s general ledger and modify vendor records.
Reimbursements did not have the required itemized receipts, mileage reimbursements were paid at the incorrect mileage rate and bank deposits were made late, according to the audit.
In a sample of 10 optometry license fees, the auditors found the board charged incorrect amounts for seven of them. They further discovered the total amount charged for licenses in 2021 was incorrect, resulting in potential underpayments of $64,100.
The LSBOE was also paying vendors without executing formal contracts, the audit report said. It spent more than $30,000 in 2021 on vendors who provided accounting, legal and continuing education services without any written contracts.
In its response to the auditors, the Optometry Board agreed with the findings and wrote that LSBOE has taken various steps to correct the problems. It has hired an accounting firm to review past transactions, and it also relocated its office so that the private association can no longer use state resources.
The board was in discussions with the Optometry Association in an attempt to recoup expenses that the group should have paid for, though no resolution has been reached yet, according to the audit.
Court records in East Baton Rouge Parish indicate the state board filed a lawsuit earlier this month seeking unspecified damages from the Optometry Association, Sandefur and Hope Carrier, who was an administrative employee for the association from May 2014 to August 2021. The lawsuit says the state board paid Carrier’s entire salary although a “significant part of her duties were for the direct benefit of the OAL.”