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Former coroner claimed iffy degrees, did outside work on taxpayer time

Updated October 27, 2021 - 3:14 pm

Former Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg claimed university degrees from a discredited diploma mill, and he made thousands of dollars, on taxpayer time, for outside speeches related to the Oct. 1 shooting, according to new records and interviews.

Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who as a state assemblywoman sponsored legislation that makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly represent having a degree that wasn’t properly earned, said she was “surprised and disappointed” that Fudenberg claimed the degrees — and that he may have violated her 2005 law.

“I think it could fit,” she said after reviewing his resume and a 2015 New York Times story about the diploma mill. “The AG should look into it.”

Fudenberg, who retired in 2020 and is currently executive director of the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, including an email from the Review-Journal detailing diploma and speech concerns.

His tenure leading the coroner’s office raises questions about the county’s oversight of its department heads.

In July, the Review-Journal revealed Fudenberg’s retirement package, sparking questions about whether he cashed out nearly $20,000 in unused vacation pay, despite his work calendar showing hundreds of vacation hours not recorded in the county’s payroll system. As coroner, he also hired his girlfriend’s meditation company to do work at the county’s expense, raising potential conflict of interest concerns.

[ Sexual harassment, retaliation claims, autopsy delays, little oversight plagued the office ]

Giunchigliani questioned how well county human resources staff vet job candidates. Clark County Assistant Manager Jeff Wells, who oversees the coroner’s office, said the county recently beefed up background checks, requiring fingerprinting for all jobs. Wells also said he wasn’t aware of two speeches Fudenberg gave in August 2018 until the Review-Journal provided documentation showing Fudenberg accepted $7,500 in honorarium without taking vacation time.

“Any manager has to rely on the judgment/ethics of your department head,” he said. “You can only take action on things you know about.”

Fudenberg, who was coroner for five years, made nearly $230,000 in salary and benefits his last full year and receives a pension of about $120,000 a year.

Unearned degrees

The Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting gave Fudenberg a much higher public profile. Speaking requests followed.

He had started his career as a work-release officer in Minnesota and rose to sergeant in the Las Vegas city marshal’s office. In 2003, the county hired him as assistant coroner and appointed him to the top job in 2015.

Since at least 2017, Fudenberg repeatedly touted having two college degrees: a bachelor’s degree in Business/Human Relations and an MBA — both from Barkley University in San Francisco.

A 2017 resume lists the degrees, and he was identified during a 2020 speech at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences as having an MBA. He also listed the MBA on a 2019 academic paper he co-authored with a group of doctors on mass shooting injuries.

Barkley University was linked in 2015 by The New York Times to a Pakistani diploma mill, and the school now has a defunct website. Barkley was even mocked by late-night TV host Stephen Colbert. The founder of the company that ran Barkley and other websites was sentenced in 2018 to seven years in prison on charges stemming from the diploma mill.

Fudenberg’s 2017 resume also stated he attended Normandale Community College and the University of Minnesota. The schools confirmed he took classes but did not earn degrees.

AAFS Assistant Director Kimberly Wrasse declined to comment about Fudenberg but forwarded the information about his Barkley degrees to AAFS leadership.

Matthew R. Carmichael, managing editor of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, which published the paper Fudenberg co-wrote, said the journal is issuing a correction in the December issue after learning of the Barkley degree from the Review-Journal. The correction “indicates Mr. Fudenberg was credited for an MBA degree that he did not earn.”

In an email, Carmichael wrote that Fudenberg told him he has an MBA that is not from an accredited university.

Dr. Babak Sarani, who co-authored the paper with Fudenberg, conceded that claiming unearned degrees is a “huge no-no” but said the findings are solid because the conclusions were reached by a group of researchers. “I’m clearly disappointed, but it doesn’t impact the results,” he said.

Before 2020, the Clark County coroner’s job required either a physician’s license or experience in law enforcement. A college degree was not required for candidates with police experience.

“Mr. Fudenberg did not claim to have any college degrees in applications to the County, and we were not aware of him making such claims with anyone else,” county spokesman Dan Kulin wrote in an email.

Wells said qualifications for coroner were reviewed only after the county started looking for a new coroner last year, and officials decided to require at minimum a bachelor’s degree.

Ross Zumwalt, a former chief medical investigator in Albuquerque who co-authored a key study on how to improve forensics, said coroners should have graduated from college. “I think anybody who is a coroner needs to have a decent, basic education and some knowledge of science and understanding of medical terms,” he said. “Otherwise they could get pressured into making some decisions they don’t understand.”

Insensitive comments

Fudenberg also made insensitive comments during his 2020 AAFS speech about using mass shootings to generate funding, a video shows. He was not paid for that speech.

“Right now the legislatures are … very aware of these mass shootings going on,” he said. “So now’s the time to jump on them and take advantage, of play that sympathy card, go up there and create some tears if you have to … do whatever you got to do to take advantage of them (and) get some money dedicated to our community.”

Fudenberg had successfully lobbied the Nevada Legislature for a 2019 bill that raised death certificate fees that go to coroners from $1 to $4 per certificate. The money was supposed to fund mental health programs for staff and frontline workers responding to mass casualty incidents.

Former state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who was on the Governmental Affairs Committee when it sponsored Senate Bill 463, expressed concern after the Review-Journal read him the comments. “I was skeptical of the (fee) increase and looks like I was rightfully skeptical,” he said.

Records show Clark County raised about $350,000 from the fee increase that has not been spent. Wells and new Clark County Coroner Melanie Rouse said they are finalizing how to use the money and “it won’t be for meditation.”

Lucrative outside work

Fudenberg also collected thousands of dollars in speaking fees while on taxpayer time, records show.

County policy requires employees to get their supervisors’ written authorization for outside work, and Fudenberg’s 2020 authorization includes a note that says he takes vacation time for all paid speeches.

But public records show Fudenberg collected $7,500 for two events in August 2018, including a three-hour training session for Snohomish County in Everett, Washington, and a speech at the Iowa Trauma Conference run by the Department of Public Health. Clark County payroll records show he logged no vacation time for August of that year despite his calendar listing Aug. 13 and 14 and Aug. 23 to Aug. 30 as vacation days in 2018.

It’s not clear how much Fudenberg collected for speeches while he was coroner because he failed to file required state ethics disclosures that would have revealed that information.

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom said Fudenberg’s paid speeches on county time and failure to file disclosures “violated the ethics for sure.”

Ethics Commission Counsel Tracy L. Chase declined to comment on whether the agency is looking into any issues involving Fudenberg, citing confidentiality provisions.

Expert witness

Along with speaking engagements, Fudenberg hired himself out as an expert witness in a controversial California lawsuit.

In March 2020, outside counsel representing Los Angeles County filed a document showing Fudenberg planned to charge as much as $750 an hour to act as an expert defense witness in a lawsuit brought by L.A. coroner investigator Denise Bertone. Bertone sued the county in 2017, claiming she was retaliated against after reporting that a doctor injected a disabled boy, who nearly drowned, with 500 micrograms of fentanyl to hasten his death, the lawsuit alleges. A nonprofit that works with the coroner’s office wanted to harvest the boy’s organs, the lawsuit alleges.

Los Angeles County refused to provide documents showing what Fudenberg was paid, saying the records are about pending litigation and protected under attorney-client privilege. Attorneys for Bertone declined comment, and the outside attorney representing Los Angeles County, Avi Burkwitz, did not return calls or emails.

In the resume filed with the expert witness designation, Fudenberg left off the Barkley University degrees, records show.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Reporter Jeff German contributed to this story.

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