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Incompetence or cover-up? Internal emails raise questions about dental board investigations

Posted: 9:45 PM, Nov 12, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-13 06:44:41-05

After receiving repeated warnings about a dentist’s falsified anesthesia credentials, Arizona Dental Board officials intentionally looked the other way, silenced staff, and even helped the dentist continue to practice, according to internal emails and documents obtained by ABC15.

The board’s executive director also incorrectly attempted to guess the news station’s source.

“Obviously (name redacted by ABC15) went to Channel 15 – fyi,” emailed former director, Elaine Hugunin, to board president Dr. Greg Waite.

RELATED: ABC15 uncovers major questions about Valley dentist's anesthesia credentials

Journalists obtained the emails through a public records request.

The internal conversations show top board staff and voting members were more concerned with keeping information about Dr. Pankaj Goyal a secret and not concerned with investigating obvious discrepancies with his credentials and answering basic questions about his public licensing file.

The evidence against Dr. Goyal was clear and obvious (his alleged residency degree was made using a basic template in Microsoft Word).

After ABC15’s investigation, he was arrested by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and charged with multiple felonies, including forgery and fraud.

But the dental board ignored the same evidence presented by ABC15 for months.

Officials lack of action continued to patients at risk.

“It’s pretty shocking,” said patient Kris Peterson. “I’m putting my life in this guy’s hands. I have children to go home to and to find out his license isn’t even real.”

A PATIENT’S STORY

Peterson underwent oral surgery on July 2.

Goyal was the anesthesiologist while a separate dentist performed the surgery. Peterson said there were red flags before the procedure began.

“The red flags were the problems with the equipment,” said Peterson referring to the machine that monitors patient’s vital signs and anesthesia levels.

“At first, they tried reconnecting the wires,” he said. “When that didn’t work, the assistant tried banging on it, turning it on and off, it just wouldn’t work.”

That’s when Peterson said he asked if the procedure should be postponed.

“He said, ‘no it’s OK, I’ll just use my stethoscope,'” Peterson said. “In hindsight, I really exercised poor judgment by not getting out of the chair at the time.”

Peterson is listed as a victim in the Attorney General's criminal case against Goyal. 

Goyal and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment about Peterson’s surgery and whether they dispute any of his account.

But ABC15 spoke to multiple dentist anesthesiologists who said using only a stethoscope to monitor a patient under anesthesia is exceptionally dangerous.

Peterson said there were complications.

“About halfway through, they had to stop the operation,” he said. “I was woken up. I didn’t get a really good explanation about what happened. But I was told there was some trouble breathing, and I was sent home…Obviously, I may never know what really happened because I was under.”

BOARD EMAILS, GOYAL’S ‘RELIEF’

Whatever did happen; it shouldn’t have happened.

Internal emails and documents show top board officials and voting members were fully aware of concerns with Goyal’s credentials – and not just for months, but for years – and they repeatedly failed to address or look into those concerns.

Before ABC15 reached out to the board, there were at least two official complaints about Goyal’s credentials. The first in 2014 and another in 2017.

But those complaints were terminated internally and directly by Elaine Hugunin, records show.

The board refuses to provide any records or information about what the board did to investigate the past complaints, if anything, citing state laws that make board investigative records confidential.

On the evening of April 2, 2018, ABC15 filed a basic public records request of Goyal’s anesthesia credentials on file with the dental board.

ABC15’s initial request included no questions or concerns about Goyal or his credentials.

However, the next morning, Hugunin sent board president Dr. Waite the email attempting to guess if a potential source went to our station.

After receiving Goyal’s records a couple of weeks later, ABC15 sent the board on April 18 a detailed list of questions and initial findings about his credentials, including confirmation from a medical school that a degree submitted by Goyal was fake.

In response to ABC15, Hugunin sent a short email, saying the board takes its mission to protect the public “very seriously” and that any information is “confidential.”

But internally, after receiving ABC15’s questions, the dental board’s investigation supervisor, Terry Bialostosky, quickly sent an email to staff.

“If anyone receives a call regarding Dr. Goyal, please refer them to myself or Elaine. Do not give out any information about him. Thank you.”

A board licensing manager replied, “I am more than happy to give that call away.” In return, Bialostosky emailed, “LOL!”

Hugunin also forwarded ABC15’s questions and initial findings to Dr. Waite.

During ABC15’s investigation, emails and records also show that Goyal was going through the renewal process for a new anesthesia permit.

Despite the information sent to the board, officials approved a new full permit for Goyal.

On May 26, a staff member emailed Goyal, “I just wanted you to know that your permit has been issued and will go out in the mail today.”

Goyal emailed back, “What a relief?”

Because of a lack of action and due to the significant public safety concern, ABC15 informed the Attorney General’s Office about its ongoing investigation and presented evidence at a public dental board meeting in June.

Hugunin declined to answer questions during a break at the same board meeting. She abruptly retired in July less than two weeks after ABC15 aired its investigation.

On Nov. 1, the dental board and Goyal finally agreed to suspend his full dental license in a mutual decision while his criminal case proceeds.

Goyal is tentatively scheduled for trial in March.

[Editor’s note: ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing has spent the past two years investigating unlicensed health professionals and how a broken system puts the public at risk. He’s completing a documentary series that will air/publish in the coming weeks. Anyone with information about an impostor health professional can contact Dave at dave@abc15.com .]