Physician in Texas Whistleblower Case Faces Criminal Charges

December 22, 2010

December 22, 2010 — Rolando Arafiles, Jr, MD, the Texas physician at the center of a notorious whistleblowing case, was arrested yesterday by officers of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and charged with 2 third-degree felonies: misuse of official information and retaliation against the 2 nurses who turned him in for subpar care.

Each charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Dr. Arafiles surrendered without resistance, and after appearing before a district court judge in Winkler County, Texas, he was released on a personal recognizance bond, according to authorities.

The charge of misuse of official information was the same one made against Anne Mitchell, RN, and Vickilyn Galle, RN, who once were coworkers with Dr. Arafiles at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas. In April 2009, the 2 nurses sent an anonymous letter along with patient records to the Texas Medical Board (TMB) alleging that Dr. Arafiles was practicing substandard medicine. At Dr. Arafiles' urging, and with his help, Robert Roberts, the sheriff of Winkler County, managed to trace the letter back to the nurses, who were then charged with misuse of official information. In the process, the hospital fired Mitchell and Galle.

Anne Mitchell, left, and Vickilyn Galle, who worked at Winkler County Memorial Hospital as nurses, are two nurses who reported claims of improper medical treatment by Dr. Rolando Arafiles, Jr, at the county hospital where they worked. Credit: Michael Stravato/The New York Times, via Redux

The county prosecutor dropped the criminal charge against Galle but took the case against Mitchell to trial in February 2010, saying that her letter to the TMB stemmed from a personal vendetta against Dr. Arafiles. In less than 1 hour, the jury found her not guilty, a decision applauded by nurses nationwide.

In the court complaint that led to Dr. Arafiles' arrest, the Texas attorney general's office states that he illegally disclosed patient information to Sheriff Roberts to help him track down the authors of the anonymous letter to the TMB. "Dr. Arafiles disclosed this information so that the complaints against Arafiles, which he characterized as harassment, would cease," the court filing states.

An attorney for Dr. Arafiles told Medscape Medical News earlier this year that her client denies having rendered questionable medical treatment, and that he had the right "to seek the involvement of law enforcement personnel with regard to the actions of the nurses in question."

Dr. Arafiles' arrest comes after a legal payday for the nurses in a civil suit that they filed in a federal district court against him, their former hospital, Sheriff Roberts, and other government officials. The nurses accused them of malicious prosecution and violation of their free speech rights, as well as the state whistleblower law. In August, the parties settled the case, with the defendants agreeing to give each nurse $375,000.

State Medical Board Charged Dr. Arafiles in July With Multiple Offenses

Dr. Arafiles also faces possible disciplinary action by the state medical board, which finally acted on the nurses' original complaint and charged him in June with poor medical judgment, nontherapeutic prescribing, failure to maintain adequate records, overbilling, witness intimidation, and other violations.

In one instance of faulty medical care, the TMB stated, Dr. Arafiles sewed part of the rubber tip from suture kit scissors to a patient's torn, broken thumb (Dr. Arafiles said he was trying to stabilize the fracture). And when another patient was hospitalized for an abscess caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Dr. Arafiles rubbed an olive oil solution — not on the hospital's formulary and not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for this purpose — on the abscess, according to the TMB. Dr. Arafiles was known for his belief in herbal medicines.

Dr. Arafiles' TMB case is now before a state administrative judge.

The 58-year-old physician had a previous run-in with the board in 2007. That year, the TMB determined that he had failed to adequately supervise a physician assistant in his work at a weight loss clinic and "make an independent judgment" about protocols for treating obesity that were in place there. The board placed a 3-year restriction on his license, prohibiting him from supervising or delegating prescriptive authority to physician assistants and nurse practitioners, as well as supervising a surgical assistant. He also was fined $1000 and ordered to complete continuing medical education in ethics, medical records, and the treatment of obesity.

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