February 22, 2024

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Dentist on watchdog board makes unauthorized donations

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A Gulfport dentist continues to serve on the state dental watchdog board, despite making thousands in unauthorized campaign contributions from a Mississippi Dental Association bank account, including $5,400 to Gov. Tate Reeves, and despite covering up $29,225 stolen from that account, some of which went to casinos.

Jeff Zimmerman continues to decide the fates of dentists accused of improper or illegal conduct, despite the pleas of the association and the board for Reeves to remove Zimmerman from the Mississippi State Board of Dental Examiners.

Jeff Zimmerman, a Gulfport dentist, is a member of the Mississippi Board of Dental Examiners.

“Had the MDA chosen to file charges against Dr. Zimmerman and if he were found guilty, it would be a felony conviction that could lead to a fine and imprisonment,” the association’s investigative report says. “The fact that no charges were filed in lieu of return of the stolen funds does not eliminate the fact that Dr. Zimmerman admits to misappropriating $5,900 of the MDA’s money that had been entrusted to him in his position as Treasurer without proper authority.”

Under state law, only Reeves has the power to remove a board member “on proof of inefficiency, incompetency, immorality, unprofessional conduct, or continued absence from the state, for failure to perform duties, or for other sufficient cause,” according to the law.

Asked about Reeves’ lack of action, Press Secretary Shelby Wilcher said the governor didn’t receive formal notification of the board’s order in the case until April 5.

“The Governor is continuing to evaluate the Consent Order in the light of his statutory duties pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 73-9-9,” she said in an email. “The Governor holds each and every one of his appointees to the highest ethical and moral standards.”

Zimmerman did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment about his continuing service on the board in light of that order.

The Mississippi Dental Association has long been active in political circles. Over the past quarter century, the association has contributed more than $1 million in donations through its Political Action Committee, nearly two thirds of it to Republican candidates, including at least $21,000 to Reeves, according to followthemoney.org.

Three months after becoming treasurer for the association’s District 5 in July 2019, Zimmerman obtained an unauthorized debit card for the District 5 bank account, according to the investigative report obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which is part of Mississippi Today. Over the next four months, that card was used to make more than 150 unauthorized purchases, totaling $29,225.

Records show many purchases at Walmart, payments to the Island View Casino in Gulfport and repeated $500 cash withdrawals from an ATM.

On Nov. 7, 2019, Zimmerman made an unauthorized political contribution of $500 to Michael Watson, a candidate for secretary of state, from the District 5 checking account, according to the report.

Watson did not respond to a request for comment.

On April 23, 2021, Zimmerman used association funds to make an unauthorized political contribution of $400 to Reeves’ campaign. Three months later, Reeves appointed him to the watchdog board.

Wilcher cited the association’s overwhelming support for Zimmerman for the board’s District 5 position — 21 votes compared to three votes for his next closest competitor.

“Because Dr. Zimmerman received the overwhelming majority of the votes cast, effective July 1, 2021, the Governor appointed Dr. Zimmerman to the Board to represent Dental District 5,” she said.

A month later, Zimmerman used association funds to make an unauthorized political contribution of $5,000 to Reeves’ campaign.

District 5 President Patton Webb Jr. learned of the $5,000 check when the Reeves campaign thanked the association for the contribution. He contacted Zimmerman and asked him to get the check back, according to the report.

Wilcher said the Reeves’ campaign returned the $5,000 contribution on that same day. She said the campaign hasn’t received a request to return the $400 contribution.

The report says Webb also asked Zimmerman to provide bank statements for the past three years. When Zimmerman finally shared those statements a month later, Webb discovered other unauthorized purchases and political contributions.

Confronted by District 5 officials, Zimmerman blamed an employee for the $29,225 in illicit purchases, saying an employee stole the card from his desk, according to the report. He said he fired the employee and arranged repayments for restitution.

Although he discovered those unauthorized purchases in January 2020, he didn’t replace those funds until after District 5 leaders asked for bank statements in October 2021, according to the report.

“He further stated that he did not report the theft to Dr. Webb or anyone else in District V,” the report says. “It was recommended that Dr. Zimmerman step down as MDA District V Secretary/Treasurer, which he did.”

Past board member Frank Conaway of Bay St. Louis said he viewed all of the District 5 bank records, which suggested “some money had been moved around that did not seem appropriate. It was closer to $40,000.”

As for the campaign contributions, District 5 members never voted to approve them, he said. “In the history of the 5th District, we have never done donations that way. It was Dr. Zimmerman acting alone when he did that.”

He said he wrote a letter on behalf of District 5 members that “we had lost confidence” in Zimmerman representing them, but the letter was never mailed under advice from legal counsel.

When questioned, Zimmerman admitted that he had held the reimbursement of these stolen funds in his own bank account until Webb discovered the theft, according to the report. 

Asked how the association felt about Zimmerman continuing to serve on the state dental watchdog board, President Rebecca Courtney said by email that the association isn’t affiliated with the board or involved in any board decisions.

Asked if the association would support a change in state law that would allow the state board to remove board members who have violated ADA ethics and the Professional Code of Conduct, she replied, “We would always support positivity to strengthen the Board of Dental Examiners and ensure they are following proper ethical conduct.”

In February 2022, Webb filed a complaint with the watchdog board regarding Zimmerman’s actions. The board investigated and determined that he and the fired employee had “failed to fully cooperate” with the investigation by “withholding information,” according to the report.

The board concluded Zimmerman had violated both state dental ethics and the American Dental Association’s Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct, according to the consent order signed by both the board and Zimmerman.

In that order, he admitted that more than $29,000 had been removed from the District 5 bank account for illicit purchases and $5,900 had been removed for unauthorized campaign contributions.

He repaid the money taken for the purchases. He agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and finish a 90-day ethics program. 

On March 31, the board voted unanimously to censure Zimmerman, who can no longer serve as an officer or on a committee, but he can continue to vote on whether to revoke a dentist’s license.

The board’s executive director, Denny Hydrick, said Wednesday that neither he nor the board had any comment beyond the consent order.

On Jan. 13, District 5 officials voted to expel Zimmerman for his actions and recommended his removal from the watchdog board. 

“Board Members must be beyond reproach and should be held to a higher standard of behavior than the rank & file dentist in Mississippi,” the report concluded. “They investigate complaints against dentists, hygienists, and radiology permit holders made by the Public and other Agencies. They then sit in judgment of these license holdings in hearings that can take someone’s license to practice their profession and their ability to make a living in the profession that they worked and trained for. Board Members must be above the law. Dr. Zimmerman has proven that he has violated the trust given his position.”

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