ATLANTA - Allan Levene's interest in knowing what happened to his cat has turned into a political crusade as he tries to change a law that protects licensed professionals who are disciplined.
After Levene's cat Isabel died at a veterinary clinic, the Evans computer consultant filed a complaint with the Georgia State Board of Veterinary Medicine in September.
Three months later, he asked what had come of it. He received an e-mail from the board saying, "The problem you addressed in your complaint has been resolved. However, pursuant to Georgia law, the board is prohibited from divulging the terms of the resolution."
Levene and his wife had grown attached to Isabel in the year they had her, so he said they were shocked to find they could learn nothing more about the outcome of their complaint.
"It was essentially top-secret," he said.
Allan and Joyce Levene sit by the memorial to their cat Isabel at their Columbia County home.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Levene contacted state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, to see about changing the law. The bill Harbin introduced to do that, House Bill 352, won approval by the Governmental Affairs Committee recently and awaits a date from the Rules Committee for the whole House of Representatives to vote on it.
Harbin, who is licensed by the state to sell insurance, believes the bill has a good chance of passing because legislators see the current law as wrong.
"I think the complainant, at least, should know what happened," Harbin said. "The state of Georgia puts its stamp on this license and says he's qualified in his profession, and if this guy turns out to be a rogue, you ought to be able to find out about that."
His bill would not allow other members of the public to know the outcome of all complaint investigations, only the person making the complaint. Full disclosure, he said, would be too difficult to pass this year.
Roughly 500,000 professionals are licensed by Georgia boards, from accountants to wastewater-treatment operators. Separate boards screen applicants, investigate complaints and discipline members of each profession when warranted.
Georgia law requires the files of investigations remain confidential to all but other professional boards and police agencies. For example, the Georgia Real Estate Commission and Georgia Real Estate Appraisers Board investigate about 400 complaints a year filed against 57,000 real-estate license holders.
Most cases for a typical board are settled by the professional agreeing to sign a consent order instead of fighting the discipline in a public hearing. But license holders can negotiate for the consent order to be kept private. The board also may send a "letter of concern" that also remains private.
Other forms of discipline - suspension or revocation of a license, fines or supervision - are public. Many boards even publish a list of disciplined license holders in professional newsletters or Web sites.
Most of the professional boards fall under the office of secretary of state. Mollie Fleeman, director of the secretary of state's professional licensing division, said private consent orders are often used in cases of medical professionals who are first-time drug users who haven't put any patients at risk.
Keeping them private encourages professionals to turn themselves in without fear they'll ruin their reputations. She said the boards she works with do notify people who file complaints within 30 days after the board votes, but they don't reveal private consent orders or letters of concern. She thought Harbin's bill wouldn't change that.
"It's only supposed to tell people the public information, not anything that is confidential," she said.
The bill still could be changed as it continues to move through the legislative process. A similar bill several years ago, sparked by concern over the discipline of psychologists, failed to pass.
But some executives with various professions think the bill could be a good idea.
"The net affect of it might be positive if the board or commission reveals that you've been disciplined, and the public perceives that there was a $5,000 fine when actually the punishment was just an order to take additional training," said Ric Wilson, program director with the real estate boards.
The executive director of the Georgia Dental Association goes beyond that.
"We think that communicating with the persons who make the complaint is an absolutely necessary in closing the case," Martha Phillips said.
Allan Levene is disappointed that Harbin's bill can't be made retroactive so he can learn the fate of his complaint.
"It's one thing about not making such a thing public, but it's another when the complainant can't find out what happened," he said.
Here are the various professions licensed by the state:
Boards overseen by the Georgia Secretary of State's Office:
Funeral directors and embalmers
Licensed practical nurses
Marriage and family therapists
Nursing home administrators
Speech language pathologists and audiologists
Used car andparts dealers
Water andwastewater treatment plant operators
Professions overseen by separate professional boards:
Physicians (Composite State Board of Medical Examiners)
Lawyers (State Bar of Georgia)
Insurance agents (Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner)
Pesticide applicators (Georgia Department of Agriculture)
Real estate agents (Georgia Real Estate Commission and Appraisers Board)
Stockbrokers/dealers, investment advisers, charitable fund-raisers, and cemetery/funeral service dealers (Georgia Office of Secretary of State - Securities Division)
Source: Secretary of State's Office.
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