Reach of the Law Catches Up to Good Ol’ Boy Ways

Austin American-Statesman, January 21, 2011

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Turning a case around 180 degrees and prosecuting the prosecutors is a judicial anomaly.

I’m a nurse. Fortunately, I’ve never worked with an incompetent doctor. But if I worked alongside one who sutured a rubber scissor tip to a patient’s broken thumb; gave three enemas to a 10-year-old boy and misdiagnosed his appendicitis; and examined the genitals of patients presenting with stomach distress, headache and sinus, blood pressure and jaw problems, I assure you I would report that doctor to the Texas Medical Board in a flash.

Back in April 2009, Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, nurses in dusty Winkler County in the Permian Basin, and others reported to the board that Dr. Rolando Arafiles Jr. delivered the inept care described above. The board investigated the reports and issued formal charges against the doctor.

Upon receiving notification of the complaint, the doctor turned to a friend, the sheriff. Winkler County Sheriff Robert L. Roberts Jr. launched an investigation aimed at finding who had reported his buddy, the doctor, to the medical board. The administrator of the Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit fired the nurses. That was only the beginning of their troubles.

In June 2009, the nurses were indicted on charges of misusing official information — a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Mitchell and Galle filed a federal civil lawsuit in August 2009 against the hospital administrator, physician, sheriff, county attorney, District Attorney Mike Fostel as well as the hospital and the county. They charged that their constitutional right to free speech and due process was violated. They further accused the defendants of violating laws intended to protect whistle-blowers.

A year later, the civil suit was settled when Winkler County officials agreed to pay them $750,000 for past and future earnings, an amount they will share with their attorneys. Taxpayers are responsible for the bill.

The criminal charges against Galle were dropped. National headlines were made when a jury acquitted Mitchell in less than an hour in February 2010.

Last month, Arafiles was arrested and charged but continued his $200,000 job at the hospital.

After Mitchell’s acquittal, Attorney General Greg Abbott opened an investigation of the case. Lawyers from the attorney general’s office presented their case to a grand jury, which on Jan. 13 returned indictments against the doctor, sheriff, county attorney and hospital administrator on charges of retaliation against the nurses.

Roberts and County Attorney Scott M. Tidwell each face six counts — two counts each of misuse of official information and retaliation (third-degree felonies) and official oppression (class A misdemeanor).

Stan Wiley, the hospital administrator who hired Arafiles and fired the nurses, was indicted on two counts of retaliation. He has since resigned.

Arafiles faces two counts each of misuse of official information and retaliation against the nurses. How rich an irony that those involved were indicted on the same charge as the nurses — misuse of official information.

Two brilliant nursing careers were ended; the county became divided as its reputation suffered. The rural hospital was left in turmoil, and medical providers left, leaving people with few options for care — a burden disproportionately shared by the elderly.

Ultimately, after the medical board’s official charges were challenged by Arafiles, the case went to an administrative law judge.

Arafiles and medical board staff reached an agreed settlement. The terms have not been disclosed. The medical board has final say on the agreement and is scheduled to consider it at its February meeting.

The whole tawdry affair was unnecessary and should send a message that stunning displays of good ol’ boy idiocy and abuse of prosecutorial discretion in a small, far-off county will not be tolerated.

Turning a case around 180 degrees and prosecuting the prosecutors is a judicial anomaly. The judicial system functioned as it should.

We await the final disposition of the case, when the doctor and officials might or might not be convicted. Like the nurses before them, they are presumed innocent. But their indictments alone prove that justice was served, at least so far.

Inglis is a neonatal intensive care nurse at the Seton Family of Hospitals and editor of ‘Seton Nursing News.’

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident, is a retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews. She also wrote a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial pages for 10 years.