Local Officials Charged in Texas Whistleblower Case

January 14, 2011

January 14, 2011 — A grand jury in Winkler County, Texas, yesterday indicted 2 county officials and the former administrator of the county hospital, along with Rolando Arafiles, Jr, MD, on criminal charges for prosecuting 2 nurses who blew the whistle on the physician's quality of care.

Dr. Arafiles had already been arrested and charged in the case last December at the instigation of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

The 2 nurses in question, Anne Mitchell, RN, and Vickilyn Galle, RN, were former coworkers of Dr. Arafiles at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit, Texas. In 2009, they wrote an anonymous letter to the Texas Medical Board about his allegedly subpar medical practices. Flushed out by a county investigation, the nurses were charged with misuse of official information — a third-degree felony — and fired from their hospital jobs. The charge against Galle was dropped, and a jury last year found Mitchell not guilty in less than an hour — a verdict that made national headlines.

Anne Mitchell, far left, and Vickilyn Galle, are 2 nurses who claimed improper medical treatment by Winkler County Memorial Hospital doctor, Rolando Arafiles, Jr, right. Source: Michael Stravato/The New York Times, via Redux/Winkler County Sheriff's Office

Yesterday's indictment represents the latest legal repercussion against Dr. Arafiles and others involved in the nurses' criminal case and job termination. Winkler County Sheriff Robert Roberts, Jr, and County Attorney Scott Tidwell were each charged with 2 counts of misuse of official information, 2 counts of retaliation (also a third-degree felony), and 2 counts of official oppression (a class A misdemeanor).

According to the Texas attorney general's office, the grand injury indictment, and other court records, once Dr. Arafiles discovered he was the subject of an anonymous complaint to the state medical board, he gave Roberts information about the patients referenced in the complaint. Armed with that knowledge, Roberts then obtained the complaint "through deception" from the state medical board in his ultimately successful effort to determine who wrote it. Roberts then disclosed what he learned to Tidwell, who asked a grand jury to indict the nurses and later prosecuted the case against Mitchell.

Stan Wiley, the former administrator of Winkler County Memorial Hospital who had fired the nurses, was indicted on 2 counts of retaliation. The grand jury also indicted Dr. Arafiles with 2 counts each of misuse of official information and retaliation — the same charges leading to his arrest in December.

Third-degree felonies in Texas are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

The new criminal case mirrors a civil action that the nurses brought against Dr. Arafiles, Roberts, Tidwell, and Wiley in federal court. Galle and Mitchell accused them of malicious prosecution and violation of their free speech rights, as well as the state whistleblower law. Last summer, the defendants agreed to pay Galle and Mitchell $375,000 apiece to settle the matter.

Meanwhile, Dr. Arafiles faces possible disciplinary action by the state medical board, which charged him last year with poor medical judgment, nontherapeutic prescribing, failure to maintain adequate records, overbilling, witness intimidation, and other violations.

The board stated that Dr. Arafiles once stitched part of the rubber tip from suture kit scissors to a patient's torn, broken thumb (Dr. Arafiles said he was trying to stabilize it). Dr. Arafiles, known for his advocacy of alternative medicine, also once rubbed an olive oil solution on a patient's abscess caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A state administrative judge is now considering the board charges.


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