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Slap: Final Score Puts Texas Whistleblower Nurses Way Ahead of Detractors

Slap: Final Score Puts Texas Whistleblower Nurses Way Ahead of Detractors

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texas, whistleblower, william heisel, nurses, anne mitchelle, vicki galle, rolando arafiles

What is happening in the case of two nurses in Winkler County, Texas, should serve as a warning to those who attempt to slap down whistleblowers.

You will not win.

In fact, you will suffer a far worse fate than if you had just stayed focused on the people who are supposed to benefit the most from the health system: the patients.

Here's a score card of winners and losers in the case that pitted nurses Anne Mitchell and Vicki Galle against a physician with powerful friends. (Well, I guess they weren't so powerful after all.)

Losers:

Dr. Rolando Arafiles: Mitchell and Galle complained anonymously to the Texas Medical Board that Arafiles was endangering patients by pushing sketchy herbal remedies, including using olive oil to treat a dangerous infection. Arafiles went on the attack, calling in chits all over the place. The nurses were subsequently fired by Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas, and criminally charged with felony misuse of official information.

But Arafiles' record of bad decisions and worse patient care caught up with him. The medical board put Arafiles on probation, fined him $5,000 and forced him to work under a practice monitor, fairly weak discipline. For his attack on Mitchell and Galle, Arafiles also was arrested and charged in December with misuse of official information and retaliation. On Thursday, he said he would represent himself in court and dallied over whether to take a plea deal. The judge in the case has yet to set a trial date.

Sheriff Robert Roberts: Arafiles had a sense of who had complained, and he enlisted his friend, Sheriff Roberts to go after the nurses.  Under the guise of a law enforcement action, Roberts confiscated the nurses' computers, digging through them to find the letter they had written to the board. And he didn't stop there. He also was accused of intimidating patients who might serve as witnesses against Arafiles. He was charged with four felony counts of retaliation.

He was found guilty in June 2011 and sentenced to 100 days in jail, four years of probation and a $6,000 fine. Most importantly, he lost his badge, making the streets of Winkler County, at least for now, a little bit safer.

Winkler County Attorney Scott Tidwell: For abusing his position by going after Mitchell and Galle, Tidwell had to undergo a trial that brought out some of his worst dirty laundry. Tidwell, who had dodged an earlier scandal when he was named as a patron of the "Healing Touch" prostitution ring, had to watch as prosecutors brought escorts to the stand to testify that he had paid for sex.

He denied the charges, but he still ended up convicted on two counts each of felony misuse of official information, felony misdemeanor official oppression and retaliation. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail, 10 years of probation and a $6,000 fine. He also lost his job as Winkler County Attorney.

Winkler County Memorial Hospital Administrator Stan Wiley: Wiley has received the least amount of ink during this scandal, but he did the most damage because he took away the nurses' livelihoods. In March 2011, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of abuse of official capacity and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He also agreed to testify against Arafiles, Roberts and Tidwell.

Winners:

Anne Mitchell and Vicki Galle: After being prosecuted by Tidwell, Mitchell was found not guilty in February 2010 of charges that she had abused her position and misused official information. Similar charges were dropped against Galle. Both she and Mitchell sued Winkler County and won $750,000 in August 2010. According to various news accounts, both have struggled to find a good job since then. When you are a nurse in rural Texas, there aren't a lot of great health care jobs to go around.

Texans for Patients' and Physicians' Rights: This deceptively named group is entirely focused on making it harder to go after bad doctors. It rode the controversy over the case to a surprising legislative victory. In the spirit of compromise, the Texas Nurses Association and other groups went along with a plan to prevent anonymous complaints to the medical board.

You read that correctly. Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, an advocacy group that monitors corporations, insurance and regulatory issues, told Mary Ann Roser at the Austin American-Statesman that the law was "a step in the wrong direction" that "could endanger the safety of patients. The bottom line is we should be adopting policies that encourage people to bring information forward - not putting limits on how information about violations of patient safety come to light." Antidote agrees.

Slap blog posts highlight threats, lawsuits and other actions to stop reporters and whistleblowers in their tracks, make them second-guess themselves or make them shut up. Got an example? Post it in the comments below or email me directly at askantidote@gmail.com

Related Posts:

Doctors Behaving Badly: Vengeful doctor and his sheriff buddy face Texas-style justice

Q&A with Clair Jordan: Defending nurses who blow the whistle

Doctors Behaving Badly: Cornered doctor turns on nurses, with the help of a friendly sheriff

Photo credit: Nils Geylen via Flickr

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