Retaliation trial for Texas sheriff starts

June 6, 2011 3:44:42 PM PDT
A West Texas sheriff heads to trial Tuesday on charges that he helped retaliate against two nurses who made an anonymous ethics complaint against a doctor who was his patient and friend.

Winkler County Sheriff Robert L. Roberts Jr. faces two counts each of misuse of official information and retaliation -- both felonies -- and official oppression, a misdemeanor. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on either of the felonies.

The two nurses Roberts allegedly investigated for the doctor also faced misuse of official information. Charges were dropped against one of the nurses, Vickilyn Galle, and the other, Anne Mitchell, was acquitted in February 2010.

Another county official and the doctor also face charges for allegedly retaliating against the nurses.

Calls for comment to Roberts' two attorneys, Woody Leverett and Jason Leach, were not immediately returned Monday, and the Texas attorney general's office, which is prosecuting the cases, had no comment. Mitchell also declined to comment.

Opening arguments in Roberts trial were set to begin Tuesday in Midland, about 330 miles west of Dallas. Earlier this year, Judge Robert H. Moore III moved the trial from Kermit at the prosecution's request and issued a gag order.

"It is ever so ironic that the two former Winkler County nurses . . . are now watching our criminal justice system prosecute the men who ruined their nursing careers and forever changed their futures," Clair Jordan, executive director of Texas Nurses Association, said in a emailed statement. "Patient advocacy -- including the reporting of unsafe practices by other health care providers -- is, in fact, a nurse's duty to a patient. Nurses are the last safety net when the health, safety and rights of the patient are threatened."

The nurses in 2009 sent an unsigned letter to the state medical regulators detailing their concerns about Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles Jr., including his alleged use of herbal remedies and attempt to use hospital supplies to perform at-home procedures. They claimed he was unethical and risking patients' health.

The women were fired from Winkler County Memorial Hospital and charged with felonies after Arafiles went to Roberts and asked him to investigate who sent the letter once the doctor learned the Texas Medical Board was looking into a complaint filed against him.

Nursing associations and health care watchdogs in Texas and across the country rallied around Mitchell during her trial, saying the case was a key test of physician accountability and they warned of a potential chilling effect on medical professionals and consumers.

Arafiles, licensed in Texas since 1998, has said the nurses' letter to the board was intended to harm him personally.

The two women sued the county, the hospital, Roberts and other officials and in August won a $750,000 settlement. Their lawsuit alleged that their First Amendment rights had been violated and that the prosecutions had been vindictive.

In February, the medical board placed Arafiles on probation for four years and told him he could continue practicing, if he completed additional training. The board also said Arafiles must be monitored by another physician and submit patient medical and billing records for review. The monitor will report his or her findings back to the board.

The board concluded that Arafiles failed to treat emergency room patients properly, did not apply hormone therapy to a female patient appropriately and failed to document patient diagnoses and treatment plans. The board also found that Arafiles improperly tried to intimidate Mitchell and Galle.

Lawmakers passed a bill (SB 192) during this year's regular legislative session that adds protections from retaliation when nurses advocate for patients. The bill, which has been sent to Gov. Rick Perry for signing, provides immunity from criminal liability for reporting unsafe care, and increases administrative fines up to $25,000.

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