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Coroner’s generous retirement package raises questions of county oversight

Updated July 8, 2021 - 4:46 pm

Former Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg cashed out nearly $20,000 in unused vacation pay upon retirement, but his work calendar shows he took hundreds of hours of vacation that weren’t recorded in the county’s payroll system.

The discrepancy raises the possibility that Fudenberg double-dipped, taking time off without reporting it to payroll, and then claiming the same hours as vacation payout owed to him when he left the office.

Fudenberg also failed to file required state ethics disclosures and hired his girlfriend’s meditation company to do work at the county’s expense, raising potential conflict of interest concerns.

Fudenberg’s tenure in the office and his nearly $175,000 retirement package, which included severance, early retirement and unused leave pay, raises questions about the county’s oversight of managers and whether they face accountability.

Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells said rank-and-file employees have to clock in to their jobs but conceded that managers, like Fudenberg, receive less scrutiny. “We don’t make department heads punch clocks,” he said. “I don’t micromanage.”

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said he is going to ask county administrators to look into the issues of the vacation payout and the payments to Fudenberg’s girlfriend uncovered by the Review-Journal.

“You’re raising issues that are legitimate, and I’m going to personally find out what happened,” he said. “Maybe we can claw some money back.”

Fudenberg said the retirement payments he received were appropriate, and his conduct in office was always ethical. “My payout was probably lower than most,” he said. “I mostly cashed out sick leave because I never had a long-term illness and didn’t have to use it. We’re lucky to have this system. It’s major benefit for us.”

Large cash payouts to government retirees have been controversial. The Review-Journal reported in 2018 that taxpayers owed almost $610 million to local government employees for unused paid time off.

The Review-Journal obtained Fudenberg’s calendars, key card entry data and vacation payroll records since 2016, analyzing when he had blocked off his calendar for personal time off, but didn’t log the vacation days into the county’s payroll system.

Wells, who supervised Fudenberg, said the former coroner was always on call, working so many hours that the county got its money’s worth.

“I actually think going back to One October (mass shooting) and going forward, I think he worked hundreds and hundreds of hours and did essential stuff,” Wells said. “I think he did a fine job for the county and the community.”

In his final full year as the coroner, Fudenberg made nearly $230,000 in pay and benefits. In the first six months of his retirement — the most recent data available — Fudenberg received nearly $62,000 in pension payments, records show. Fudenberg worked at the Las Vegas city marshal’s office until the county hired him in 2003 to work as assistant coroner. He was appointed to the office’s top job in 2015.

Retirement package

In July 2020, the county announced that Fudenberg was one of about 420 county employees taking voluntary retirement as part of the county’s effort to save money during the COVID crisis. But officials didn’t reveal the size of his exit package at the time.

The Review-Journal obtained records that showed the county paid Fudenberg a total of $174,967, including about $19,000 for unused vacation and bonus leave and $105,000 for accrued sick leave. He also received about $38,000 for severance and $12,000 for early retirement.

Based on the county’s early retirement policy of one week’s pay for every two years of service, Fudenberg should have received about eight weeks of pay for early retirement, which would have totaled about $32,000. Instead, the county decided to give him a 12-week severance and an additional three weeks for accepting early retirement, totaling about $50,000, county officials said.

That allowed Fudenberg to get 15 weeks of pay, which was the maximum allowed under the early retirement policy, county spokesman Dan Kulin wrote in an email exchange.

The county’s manager compensation plan provides one week of severance for each year of service up to 12 weeks, but it also notes the decision to pay is “at the sole discretion of the County Manager.”

Segerblom said he believes severance should be for employees who are laid off or fired — not ones voluntarily retiring. “We can’t unilaterally give everything especially if it’s discretionary,” he said.

Also, Fudenberg’s calendar shows he repeatedly blocked dates for vacation or other non-work events without logging the hours in the payroll system. Then, he cashed out nearly 240 hours of vacation and bonus leave at about $80 an hour. County workers each year can carry over 240 hours of vacation.

For example, Fudenberg’s calendar says “John in MN” between June 29 and July 7, 2017, but no vacation hours were logged. The county did not have key card records going back to June 2017.

Between Aug. 23 and Aug. 30, 2018, Fudenberg’s calendar shows him traveling to St. Paul, Minn., and Iowa, noting vacation and flight times. None of those hours was logged as vacation. Key card records show him entering the coroner’s office at 7:44 a.m. on the 23rd but not the other dates.

Fudenberg said he didn’t remember the specific trips. He offered to research the vacation and respond by email but never did. Kulin said the key card records may be incomplete.

Fudenberg said he might have blocked vacation on his calendar but then decided not to take the time off, so there was no need to log vacation. “I religiously put in my vacation time,” he said, adding that he also received comp time every other year for his work as the county’s lobbyist in Carson City.

Failure to file

Fudenberg also said he always took vacation time if he received payment for speeches, but his failure to file required state financial disclosures makes that impossible to confirm.

Five months after the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre on the Las Vegas Strip, Fudenberg submitted an outside work request, allowing him to be paid for speaking engagements. In 2020, he refiled that form with a handwritten note that said he would only accept payment for engagements if he took vacation.

Appointees are required to file state disclosures that reveal how much honorarium, travel paid by non-government organizations and gifts they receive.

Appointed officials like Fudenberg “are supposed to file with us, but he never has,” Jennifer Russell, spokeswoman for the Nevada secretary of state’s office, said in an email exchange. Russell said the forms are designed to reveal conflicts of interest, but the office could not penalize Fudenberg because he is no longer a government employee.

Fudenberg filed Clark County disclosures, but those do not require him to reveal the same information as the state forms. They also do not relieve him of the requirement to file state forms, Russell said.

Fudenberg said he never took pay for a speech if he was on county time. “I was always extremely careful about conflicts of interest,” he said. He did not respond to requests to provide dates and amounts for paid speeches to determine whether he logged vacation.

Fudenberg also failed to file an outside work authorization in 2018, when he was paid $7,772 to act as secretary of the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners, the nonprofit’s tax returns show. After retiring in August, Fudenberg became executive director of the association.

Between 2018 and 2020, county taxpayers paid nearly $10,000 in membership dues to the association, records show.

Booking with girlfriend’s company

After the 2017 mass shooting, Fudenberg appeared in Review-Journal stories and other media touting the benefits of meditation and yoga to relieve stress for county employees.

On Oct. 18, 2017, the coroner’s office started to book meditation sessions, including services from a company called Inner Peace Initiative, which lists Catherine Scherwenka as a manager, incorporation records show.

Between October 2017 and May 2019, the coroner’s office paid more than $6,000 to Inner Peace Initiative or people listed on the company’s incorporation papers, records show. The sessions were for coroner staff, first responders and even families of Oct. 1 victims, Wells said.

Former coroner John Fudenberg posted a picture of him and his girlfriend, Catherine Scherwenka, ...
Former coroner John Fudenberg posted a picture of him and his girlfriend, Catherine Scherwenka, at Lake Tahoe on social media, but questions remain whether she was a vendor for his office when they were dating.

Scherwenka and Fudenberg’s social media accounts make repeated mentions of their personal relationship. The accounts show pictures of them attending sporting events and traveling, including an October 2019 trip to Lake Tahoe. During the trip, Fudenberg posted a picture of the two, cheek to cheek, with the text: “Loved Visiting Lake Tahoe with this Amazing Woman” and four heart emojis.

After the Review-Journal started asking questions, Segerblom said county managers assured him that Fudenberg was not in a relationship with Scherwenka when she received the county payments. But Segerblom said it would be a problem if they were dating at the time. “If there’s something with his girlfriend, that’s not good,” he said.

Fudenberg declined to say when he started dating Scherwenka, calling it “personal,” but said it was only after she completed her work for his office. Scherwenka could not be reached for comment.

But emails obtained through the state’s public records law indicate the relationship may have been going on as the county was paying Inner Peace.

On April 27, 2019, Scherwenka sent Fudenberg an invite to his work email, which he accepted, for a July weekend of camping at McWilliams Campground. A month later, in May 2019, the coroner’s office paid Inner Peace $375 in taxpayers’ money. The following month, Inner Peace billed the county an additional $700, but that payment came from the county’s social services department, records show.

Fudenberg blocked off Friday, July 26 to Monday July 29, 2019, on his calendar for the camping trip, but he failed to claim any vacation time, according to county payroll records.

Wells said Fudenberg notified county officials about his relationship with Scherwenka, but he could not recall when.

In the years leading up to his retirement, Fudenberg led the fight against a Review-Journal public records request for juvenile autopsy reports as part of an investigation into Child Protective Services. Courts, including the state’s top court, repeatedly ruled against the county, determining the records were public documents. After giving up the fight late last year, county taxpayers had to pay about $250,000 in legal fees and reimburse the newspaper for its legal costs.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ and @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane and German are members of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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