Final of four Winkler County ‘good ol’ boys’ faces charges in court

Austin American-Statesman, October 13, 2011

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Alternate juror James Fair's eyes were opened. Knowing nothing of the case before he was picked, he said, 'It just goes to show you how people with power can abuse it...As time went on,' Fair continued, 'it became more and more clear exactly what was going on and in my opinion, there was no defense. They should have never even went to trial. The whole thing was ridiculous.'

The last man standing in the unfolding saga of small-town retaliation against two nurses who tried to protect hospital patients from dangerous medical care is scheduled to appear before a judge today. The pre-trial hearing of Dr. Rolando Arafiles should be the opening scene in what should be the closing chapter of a story that grabbed national attention.

One by one, the Winkler County sheriff, county attorney and hospital administrator all lost their jobs and have been sentenced for their roles in retaliating against the nurses who registered an anonymous complaint of dangerous practice with the Texas Medical Board against the town doctor. Though the doctor has been disciplined by the medical board and could be disciplined further, he also faces criminal charges arising from the scandal.

In June 2009, these four prominent Winkler County good ol’ boys orchestrated the prosecution of Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, who were fired from their jobs and indicted on third-degree felony charges of misuse of official information, each nurse facing a possible 10 years in prison and $10,000 fine.

Responding to their report, the medical board publicly reprimanded Arafiles, fined him, and required classes and supervision.

Charges against Galle were dropped, but Mitchell stood trial and was acquitted in less than an hour. For exercising their ethical duty to protect patients, their careers were destroyed. The Texas attorney general opened an investigation and prosecuted the four men.

Arafiles is the last of the four to have his day in court. The other three have all served jail time.

The first of the four, hospital administrator Stan Wiley, was indicted on two felony charges of retaliation. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge in exchange for his cooperation. He also spent 30 days in jail and was fined $2,000.

The second, Sheriff Robert Roberts, was convicted in less than two hours of all six charges — two counts each of retaliation, misuse of official information and official oppression. Roberts was removed from office, fined $6,000, received four years of felony probation and was sentenced to 100 days behind the bars of the jail he ran for 20 years. He will retire from the county with full benefits.

The third, County Attorney Scott Tidwell, was convicted Oct. 4 on all charges — four felonies and two misdemeanors.

Against the advice of the executive director of the Texas Medical Board and the Andrews County attorney, Tidwell prosecuted the case against the nurses, acting as district attorney, even though he was county attorney.

The prosecuting attorney in Tidwell’s case told the jury that Tidwell’s motive to prosecute the nurses was that Arafiles was a “cash cow” for the hospital, ordering expensive (and well reimbursed) tests and admitting patients, which Mitchell and Galle reported as unnecessary.

Tidwell opted for the judge to assess his sentencing. The defendant’s character and criminal past is normally part of sentencing considerations. During the sentencing phase, Tidwell’s past contact with prostitutes surfaced. Tidwell pleaded guilty to charges of hiring a prostitute in 2004.

Judge Robert Moore sentenced Tidwell to 120 days in jail, 10 years of probation and a $6,000 fine. He is appealing, but the judge already had removed him from office.

The judge said, “Lives have been altered and changed in a way that there is no undoing … The ones most profoundly and permanently affected are, of course, Anne Mitchell and Vicki Galle.” After trial, it was reported he approached Tidwell and asked in hushed tones, “What were you thinking?”

It’s a tragedy that the careers of these brave women ended for doing the right thing by exercising their ethical — and in some cases — legal duty to report unsafe practice. The medical board depends on the eyes and ears of nurses and others on the health care team to report subpar practice to achieve its mission — protecting patients, the same duty nurses have.

Criminal prosecution of nurses for reporting a doctor is unprecedented, and to help it from happening again, the Legislature passed a bill this year increasing medical whistle-blowers protections as well as fines for nurse retaliation.

Eyes have been opened about nurses’ important duty to protect patients against harmful medical providers.

Alternate juror James Fair’s eyes were opened. Knowing nothing of the case before he was picked, he said, “It just goes to show you how people with power can abuse it.” Though he was not part of jury deliberations, he said he would have handed down the same verdict and that he sees the role of the nurses and patient care standards with a whole new appreciation.

“As time went on,” Fair continued, “it became more and more clear exactly what was going on and in my opinion, there was no defense. They should have never even went to trial. The whole thing was ridiculous.”

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.