Six years ago, lawmakers called on the state agency tasked with licensing and regulating Texas animal doctors to address some ‘concerning’ data reliability issues. Specifically, the agency was supposed to fix its licensee look-up website — a tool that enables pet-owners to search for their veterinarian’s disciplinary history. Just months before this agency’s next legislative review, KXAN investigators discovered dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the look-up tool.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — When 5-year-old Jax was dropped off to stay at a boarding facility and animal hospital in Taylor in March 2021, court records say he was healthy.
However, when the Olde English Bulldog’s owner picked him up just one week later, Jax couldn’t walk. According to a memo from the director of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Special Crimes Unit, the dog was covered in urine, with “sores all over his body,” and ultimately had to be euthanized.
In a later search of the facility, detectives reported finding foul odors, feces, urine puddles, uncapped used syringes, loose medications and other “unclean” conditions. They issued an arrest warrant for the veterinarian involved, and in June of 2021, she turned herself into jail to be booked on charges of animal cruelty, according to court records.
Later, this veterinarian also faced discipline from the state’s veterinary licensing board, but a KXAN investigation found gaps in the board’s database that made it difficult for Texans to see disciplinary history for this vet — and others.
KXAN is not naming her in this story in order to focus on greater accountability within the system, but you can read about her ongoing case here. KXAN reached out to her attorney several times, but never heard back.
‘Looking for answers’
The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, or TBVME, became involved with Jax’s investigation early on, court records show. This agency licenses and regulates all Texas animal doctors, veterinary technicians and equine dental providers across the state — and investigates any complaints against their licensure.
After news broke of this doctor’s arrest in June 2021, KXAN investigators got a tip to search her name in the TBVME online database — a tool to help the public access any state disciplinary records that may exist for doctors or technicians the agency licenses. This look-up tool showed a clean record for the Taylor veterinarian charged in Jax’s case.
However, a few days later, KXAN investigators got several more emails and tips that TBVME reprimanded this same vet in the past, in a different case.
KXAN was able to confirm, using agency documents, the board agreed to discipline this vet over an incident from 2018, where pills at her animal hospital were not recorded properly. But, no documentation of this reprimand by the board appeared on the look-up tool at the time.
When we asked the board for an explanation, a staff attorney said, “The agency is currently implementing a new data system to accurately display licensee disciplinary history. Importing each individual order accurately to this new system is a time-consuming endeavor.”
The attorney told KXAN anyone could submit a formal Public Information Request to obtain specific disciplinary records — called Agreed Orders — from the board.
The Taylor veterinarian’s records had been uploaded in June “in anticipation of those open records requests” in her case, the attorney explained.
Jodi Ware sent KXAN one of those tips about the Taylor veterinarian’s disciplinary history.
She said she worried the incident was part of a larger trend of missing records and a general “lack of transparency” from the agency, which she believes makes it more difficult for the public to see which pet doctors have been disciplined — and why.
Six years ago, Ware submitted her own complaint to the TBVME, over concerns about how a surgery on her dog, Lightning Bolt, was handled. After going through the process herself, she began tracking disciplinary actions, complaints and other TBVME data — becoming a watchdog over the state agency.
“I’m always looking for answers,” Ware told KXAN in an interview a few months later. “At the end of the day, somebody has got to speak up for the animals, and it’s difficult for me — knowing what I know — to stop.”
In February 2022, Ware reached out to KXAN again to let us know the Taylor veterinarian had her license suspended by the TBVME, according to board meeting minutes.
But when KXAN searched the vet’s name in the licensee look-up tool again, no new records appeared.
An attorney for TBVME told KXAN in an email the agency was still experiencing delays with the data migration of disciplinary records.
For example, he explained “historical” records, meaning those scanned in 2011 through 2020, were being linked to names, not license numbers — which proved to be “problematic” in some cases. So, these records were being manually imported and verified.
The attorney said these historical records were successfully imported and published in June 2021, around the time of the investigation and arrest in Jax’s case. He also explained all disciplinary actions and Agreed Orders from late 2020 going forward would be “manually verified, scanned, and imported into the system.”
“A request has been made to the system developers to publish the current batch of board orders (from 2020 to 2021) to the public search feature,” he said.
The attorney told KXAN the agency’s Executive Director expected the upload to be “substantially complete” by the end of April, or sooner.
Still, as of late April, KXAN investigators counted dozens of disciplinary documents that appeared to be missing from the licensee look-up tool. Digging through board meeting minutes, we identified more than 70 cases where the board agreed to some kind of disciplinary action, but the look-up tool showed no corresponding disciplinary documents had uploaded for the veterinarian involved.
Many of these records were from 2019 — uploads which the board previously said had been completed nearly one year ago.
Ware, who tracks similar data herself, told KXAN she worries about how the years-long data migration and lack of some records have affected pet owners over the last six years.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said. “They should be serving us with half of the respect that they serve the profession — that’s their job.”
The recent records questions come just six months before lawmakers are set to review the TBVME on the very same issue.
In 2016, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates the performance of state agencies, found the agency could not ensure the fair treatment of licensees and people who file complaints against licensees. Sunset staff also noted “poor oversight” of veterinarians’ prescribing and dispensing of controlled substances.
Plus, staff specifically directed the agency to “ensure its website accurately reflects the disciplinary status of its licensees” and make disciplinary records “easily accessible and readily available on its website.”
Advisory staff highlighted financial management and data reliability problems as the “most concerning.”
“That pretty much covers everything the agency does right?” former Senator Kirk Watson asked Sunset staff in a recorded legislative meeting. “What is the root of the problem?”
Those staffers, Watson and other lawmakers ultimately said they believed “bad management” to be the root of all the issues. The 85th Texas Legislature approved the agency to continue operating, but for only four years, pending a limited scope review in 2020. Plus, lawmakers passed legislation that changed the composition of the agency’s board and required improved training for board members, according to the commission’s published Final Results.
Four years later, the Sunset Commission determined TBVME had implemented all of the previously-recommended changes, except “the agency continues to struggle with effective data collection and trend analysis,” staff noted in their written report.
In a hearing before lawmakers in December 2020, staff said the agency was dealing with issues “outside of their control” trying to update the database system used for the licensee look-up tool. Staff testified they were aware one of the vendors helping with the tool went out of business during the process.
The TBVME Executive Director, hired after the 2016 Sunset Review, told lawmakers it had contracted with a new vendor, so the database would be “working and should be online very shortly.”
John Helenberg said, “I believe that we are in a better place.”
The Sunset Commission recommended the agency undergo a “special purpose” review in two years, to check on the implementation of the database system. This review is scheduled to begin in November 2022.
KXAN sent several emails to agency staff and the executive director with specific questions about the progress of the data migration and other operations — including requests for an on-camera interview — ahead of the next legislative review.
An attorney for the board answered a few select questions over email, but after several weeks went by without a full response, KXAN investigators attended the board’s April meeting in hopes of speaking with staff or leadership.
Before the meeting began, board President Dr. Quillivan said she would “likely” be the one speaking with us about our emailed questions, after the meeting. Agency staff repeated that would be the case.
However, near the end of the day, an attorney for the board informed us the president would no longer be doing an interview with us.
KXAN attempted to talk to the president anyway, but she refused answer our questions and told us to reach out to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“It’s not going to be me. You can ask others,” she said.
KXAN approached other board members, who all directed us back to the president or declined to comment. Many told us they were unaware we had emailed questions to their staff.
Then, as the board President suggested, KXAN reached out to the Governor, who appoints the board members. In response to our questions, the Governor’s press secretary Renae Eze sent this statement to KXAN:
“The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has faithfully followed all recommendations from the sunset commission — including those related to uploading disciplinary documents and Agreed Orders and improvements to the board’s data management system. The implementation of some of these recommendations are ongoing, as the board has faced delays due to unforeseen issues such as staff vacancies, issues with IT contractors, and other technical difficulties. Despite these delays, the board has worked closely with the sunset commission throughout this process to ensure all recommendations are followed, and the board remains committed to ensuring the best possible quality of veterinary and equine dental provider services for the people and animals of Texas.”
The board sent over the same statement a few days later.
While board leadership didn’t answer our specific questions, during the April meeting board members did discuss ways to tackle a “backlog” of cases tied up in the agency’s legal department and other outstanding administrative tasks. Board members also referenced how “staffing shortages” could be affecting these tasks, as well as an upcoming move into a new state office building.
During the public comment portion of this meeting, Ware presented several of her concerns to the board, calling for more urgency with the look-up tool and more transparency in other agency operations.
In an interview with KXAN, she said, “It’s a dogged pursuit and a lot of times it feels very futile, it really does. It seems nobody is holding them accountable.”
In her opinion, the licensee look-up tool is harder to use today than it was in 2016.
“It’s difficult when you are aware of something that is so wrong, and you are aware of a population that is so vulnerable,” Ware said. “Our animals can’t speak to tell us what happens.”
A spokesperson for the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, which advocates for professionals in the industry, told us, “Veterinarians are bound by and hold themselves to high professional standards, so it’s important to be transparent with the public when one does not meet the standard.”
However, he said a key component of transparency is ensuring public information is both “accurate and actionable” — meaning only finalized disciplinary actions are posted to the tool or made public.
In an email, the spokesperson said, “The public can rely on a final order because it presents the facts of a case after a thorough investigation where all applicable records and evidence has been reviewed, and experts have analyzed the evidence against the accepted standard of care. If a complaint is filed but later found to be meritless, the public does not benefit from seeing the allegations in it, and the veterinarian’s reputation could be irreparably damaged despite no eventual finding of wrongdoing.”
Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Graphic Artist Rachel Gale, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.