N.J. Owed $13.8M In Fines — Sunday, October 30, 2011

Licensed professionals such as doctors and accountants owe New Jersey $13.8 million in overdue fines for everything from lying about their education to sexually harassing a patient during a checkup, and state officials concede they haven't done enough to collect the money.

The unpaid fines were disclosed by state officials after The Star-Ledger reviewed six years' worth of records from New Jersey's 46 licensing and disciplinary boards, which are charged with protecting consumers from dishonest or dangerous professionals. The review showed that, in all, 28 percent of fines leveled by these boards went uncollected.

State officials who oversee the discipline of professionals say the problem is partially the result of boards using different methods to keep track of penalties over the years, making it tougher to figure out which offenders didn't pay their fines. The boards also failed to aggressively pursue the money owed to them because of staffing limitations, they said.

Consumers unaware

"Consumers are going to these professionals, and some of them did things that meant they needed to be fined or reprimanded, yet they're getting away with not paying," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a government watchdog group. "If there are no punishments for what they do, then they'll continue to do it."

In response to questions from The Star-Ledger, state officials said changes are already in the works. Thomas Calcagni, head of the Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the boards, said that by the start of next year, all the boards will use a new, automated debttracking system. He said he plans to create a position within the division's fiscal department to oversee the collection of fines, and for the first time, the division will revoke someone's license if they continuously refuse to pay.

"Is the current recovery rate acceptable to us? The answer is no, we can do better," Calcagni said. "We're sensitive to the economic realities here and our aim in most cases is to simply collect the fine owed, not to put the professional out of business."

Range of penalties

Fines range from as little as $100 to more than $100,000. For example, a dentist was fined $2,500 last year for improperly giving a patient six tooth implants that had to be replaced. A psychiatrist was fined $15,000 this year for sexually harassing a patient by running his hand under her shirt and touching her breast.

But not everyone pays. In 2004, an administrative law judge upheld a $150,000 penalty against a chiropractor who treated patients without a license, but the division says it hasn't collected it.

Jonathan Eisenmenger, executive director for the boards overseeing dentists and chiropractors, said some people honestly admit their mistakes and pay the fines, while others simply ignore them. If the division does not collect the money within 90 days, the debt goes to the state Department of the Treasury, which farms it out to collection agencies.

Christopher Baxter is a reporter for The Star-Ledger.

Copyright 2011 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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