Whistle-blower nurses see justice in the end

Austin American-Statesman, July 27, 2012

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Glickler said:

The outcome of the Winkler County nurses’ whistle-blower saga would have ended differently had it not been for three public servants doing their jobs and doing them well.

For defending a nurse’s right to act as patient advocate, Assistant Attorneys General David Glickler and Shane Attaway and investigator Randy Muenzler recently received the Texas Nurses Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award.

You might remember the characters in this sordid tale of abuse of power:

■ The victims/heroes: Nurses Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, who anonymously reported a doctor for poor and unsafe care to the Texas Medical Board in 2009, while the nurses were in charge of quality assurance and risk management at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit. They, too, were doing their jobs.

■ The villains: Four prominent Winkler County buddies — Rolando Arafiles, the doctor; Scott Tidwell, the county attorney; Robert Roberts, the sheriff; and Stan Wiley, the hospital administrator.

When the medical board notified Arafiles of the complaint, he asked his golf buddy, the sheriff, to find out who reported him. The sheriff sent a letter to the board stating he was conducting a criminal investigation and needed a copy of the complaint.

The board sent him a copy and noted that the information in the complaint was confidential.

The complaint letter said, “Due to the ‘economic climate,’ the fact that I am over 50, female and have been employed by this facility since the 1980s, I am hesitant to place a signature on this information.”

Bingo. That narrowed his search to two nurses who fit the description: Mitchell and Galle. The sheriff seized their work computers and found a copy of the letter to the medical board.

The hospital administrator fired the nurses, and the county attorney charged them with “misuse of official information,” a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Mitchell and Galle endured an excruciating, eight-month wait for the criminal trial. Charges were dropped against Galle at the last minute, and the jury acquitted Mitchell in less than an hour.

After the medical board complained to the Texas attorney general’s office that the nurses had been illegally prosecuted, the case was opened.

At the end of an investigation by Glickler and Muenzler, all four good ol’ boys lost their jobs, were sentenced to jail and paid fines. The hospital administrator and the doctor pleaded guilty. Juries found the sheriff and county attorney guilty. The doctor, sheriff and county attorney lost their professional licenses.

Muenzler had a special sensitivity in this case. He is married to a nurse who was offended by what happened in Winkler County and was aware of the ramifications of reporting.

“I was struck by the oppressive and heavy-handed manner in which they came down on those nurses,” he said. “None of this should have happened.”

Attaway was equally moved.

“This is one of those cases that makes you feel good about being a prosecutor,” he said. “Those nurses were so wronged; they must have thought there’s no one who can help them.”

Glickler said: “In 11 years at the AG’s office, this is by far the most bizarre case we’ve been faced with. We’re used to dealing with cases where public officials have enriched themselves at the expense of the office and the public trust, like bribery and theft. But there was no financial benefit to the bad actors in this case.”

“I’m humbled to have had a role in a case that will so largely impact nursing, law enforcement, too-proud prosecutors and small-town politics. You can’t push people around,” he added.

Where are key figures in the story now?

Ex-hospital administrator Wiley went back to Lubbock. Ex-doctor Arafiles returned to Kermit and is tossing pizzas at the Pizza Hut. Ex-county attorney Tidwell is appealing his license revocation.

Nurse Galle retired early, and Mitchell accepted a position working with the developmentally disabled in a small town in New Mexico.

Muentzler, Glickler and Attaway still work for the attorney general’s office.

Glickler is running for judge in the 22nd District Court, covering Caldwell, Comal and Hays counties.

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.