Whistleblower nurse cleared of charges

February 11, 2010 12:45:19 PM PST
A Texas jury acquitted a nurse on Thursday who filed an anonymous complaint to a state board about a doctor who she said had improperly encouraged patients to buy herbal medicines and wanted to use hospital supplies to perform a procedure at a patient's home. Prosecutors have said personal -- not professional -- reasons motivated nurse Anne Mitchell to file the complaint in April against Dr. Rolando Arafiles with the Texas Medical Board. She was indicted in June on a count of "misuse of official information" after Arafiles filed a harassment complaint with the Winkler County Sheriff's Department.

Prosecutors claimed Mitchell, who had worked with Arafiles at a West Texas hospital, didn't like the doctor and filed the complaint with intent to harm him and that the complaint disclosed patient information for "a nongovernmental purpose."

After the jury returned its verdict, Mitchell said she would continue to report doctors if she believes they aren't giving patients proper care. She would have faced up to 10 years in prison if she had been convicted.

"I still have to do those things for patients," she said. "My duty's never changed."

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

The state medical board's executive director, Mari E. Robinson, has said her agency is a governmental one and a complaint filed by a nurse against a doctor she didn't like does not necessary mean it was filed in bad faith.

"There is no requirement that you have to like someone to file a complaint against someone," she said. "No one complains to this board because they think someone is doing a good job. They file a complaint because they think someone is doing a bad job."

But one physicians group, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, also said anonymously disparaging a doctor and possibly depriving him of a livelihood "on the basis of false, bad-faith allegations" needs to stop.

"Accountability for false complaints is long overdue," said Dr. Jane Orient, the association's executive director said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the prosecutor dropped charges against another nurse, Vicki Galle, who filed the complaint with Mitchell. Galle declined to comment this week.

The women's attorneys have also filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Arafiles, Winkler County and its hospital, sheriff, prosecutor. The suit alleges the nurses' First Amendment rights were denied and that the criminal prosecution is vindictive.

In September, investigators from the Department of State Health Services went to the hospital and found several medical procedure violations by Arafiles, according to their report.