Thursday, February 11, 2010

Another Western Sheriff takes law into own hands

What's with the cowboy Sheriffs out West? First there was Arizona's Maricopa County's Sheriff, now this one from Texas.

Nurse to Stand Trial for Reporting Doctor
Mrs. Mitchell is scheduled to stand trial in state court on Monday for “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony in Texas.

Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Galle had worked a combined 47 years at Winkler County Memorial Hospital here, most recently as its compliance and quality improvement officers.

It was not long after the public hospital hired Dr. Arafiles in 2008 that the nurses said they began to worry. They sounded internal alarms but felt they were not being heeded by administrators.

Frustrated and fearing for patients, they directed the medical board to six cases “of concern” that were identified by file numbers but not by patient names. The letter also mentioned that Dr. Arafiles was sending e-mail messages to patients about an herbal supplement he sold on the side.

Mrs. Mitchell typed the letter and mailed it with a separate complaint signed by a third nurse, who wrote that she had resigned because of similar concerns about Dr. Arafiles.

When the medical board notified Dr. Arafiles of the anonymous complaint, he protested to his friend, the Winkler County sheriff, that he was being harassed. The sheriff, an admiring patient who credits the doctor with saving him after a heart attack, obtained a search warrant to seize the two nurses’ work computers and found the letter.

The hospital administrator, Stan Wiley, said in an interview that Dr. Arafiles had been reprimanded on several occasions for improprieties in writing prescriptions and performing surgery and had agreed to make changes. Mr. Wiley, who said it was difficult to recruit physicians to remote West Texas, said he knew when he hired Dr. Arafiles that he had a restriction on his license stemming from his supervision of a weight-loss clinic.

In a surprise inspection last September, state investigators found several violations by Dr. Arafiles and concluded that the hospital had discriminated against the nurses by firing them for “reporting in good faith.”

Dr. Arafiles, 47, who attended medical school in his native Philippines and trained in Baltimore and Buffalo, said his lawyer had advised him not to talk. “I’ve been brutalized and abused,” he said. “I’m the victim in this case, and that is all I can say.”

Sheriff Roberts, who has held the post for 18 years, said the state would show that the complaint had been filed in vengeance. “If it’s made to destroy somebody’s reputation or forcing them to leave town,” he said, “then I don’t believe it is good faith.”



POSTING POST SCRIPT: Nurse Whistle-Blower Not Guilty for Reporting Doctor
A Texas jury has found veteran nurse Anne Mitchell not guilty of harassment.

Her lawyer, John H. Cook IV, announced the verdict today on the fourth day of the trial in Andrew, Texas. Jurors took less than an hour to reach their verdict. "But there was great damage done in this case, and this does not make them whole."

OK, the wrongeed nurse has been wrecktified, but what about the wrongor?

Commentary: Give sheriff and DA own medicine By RICK CASEY HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Now it's time for the sheriff who investigated her and the district attorney who prosecuted her to be brought to justice. We can only fantasize.

The sheriff wrote the Texas Medical Board asking for a copy of the anonymous letter for a criminal investigation. Medical Board officials assumed he was investigating the doctor, according to a spokeswoman.

In a letter to him, they said that under the law the letter could not be released except to a law enforcement official “conducting a criminal investigation of a license holder of the TMB.” Nurses are not licensed by the Medical Board.

“It is our understanding that your agency is a bona fide law enforcement agency and is conducting a criminal investigation of a license holder of the TMB,” the letter said, adding, “If we are incorrect in any of these understandings , please advise us immediately.”

Instead of correcting the board's assumptions, the sheriff used the letter to identify the nurse who was over 50 and had been with the hospital since the 1980s. He obtained a search warrant of her computers and found a copy of letter.

He also questioned all the patients to whom the complaint referred.

On June 1 hospital officials abruptly fired Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, who had admitted to helping draft the complaint.

Ten days later the two women were indicted on charges of felony “misuse of official information,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years.

Within weeks however, District Attorney Mike Fostel offered a deal: The indictment would be dropped if the women agreed not to sue the county or its hospital.

Smart man, but it didn't work. The nurses filed a federal lawsuit.

But what about the sheriff and the prosecutors, who appear to have engaged in “misuse of official information” to indict two women who were trying to protect patients?

History offers little hope that the state or the bar will hold them accountable.

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