Harwell: Using Legislation as Influence is ‘Wrong’

Speaker Beth Harwell said she has never used legislation to pressure a department or committee to do what she wants, and that anyone who has would be in the wrong.

The Nashville Republican was responding to questions Wednesday about what she knew about Reps. Tony Shipley and Dale Ford’s involvement in getting the state Nursing Board to reverse its decision to discipline three nurses accused of substandard care contributing to the death of two patients.

“We certainly don’t want in any way (to) appear abusive, and I don’t think that was anyone’s intent, and if it was, they were wrong,” said Harwell.

“I don’t know the particulars of it. I made a point not to know the particulars of it. If they have done something that is wrong or is inappropriate or unethical, they should receive punishment for it, but I don’t know that they have.”

Harwell refused to offer specific comment about the allegations because the issue is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, although she said she’s not been contacted by the agency.

TBI launched an investigation June 22 into members of the General Assembly and employees within the state Health Department to determine if they had committed any crimes, including misconduct and false reporting, in pressuring the Nursing Board to revisit their decision to discipline the nurses. The complaint sparking the investigation came from District Attorney General Torry Johnson.

“TBI is currently ascertaining the facts surrounding the Board of Nursing reinstating the licenses of three nurse practitioners after two state representatives expressed an interest in the nurses getting their licenses back,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said in an emailed statement.

The department has been investigating the nurses involved, Bobby Reynolds II, David Stout Jr. and Tina Killebrew. The case began as an over-prescribing case in Johnson City and evolved into a death investigation, according to Helm. She said that case file is now being reviewed by District Attorney General Tony Clark’s office.

Shipley and Ford this year supported legislation to block the Nursing Board’s renewal, create a committee to oversee the board and reduce the number of members on the board in what they say were attempts to get the body to reconsider actions taken against the three nurses, who were accused of over-prescribing medication relating to the deaths of three patients at the now defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City.

According to the Kingsport Times-News:

In May, Shipley said that as an officer of the Government Operations Committee, he “took the position of blocking the extension of the board,” until they agreed to listen to their argument. He said a yearlong battle ensued before the board finally agreed to take another look at the evidence. During the last three or four months of that period of time, Shipley said he had someone from the Department of Health in his office – from the legislative coordinator “all the way up to a deputy commissioner” – engaged in “sometimes heated discussion” toward that end.

In April, Shipley advocated a House amendment to reduce the number of nursing board members and require having seven board members present before issuing a summary suspension.

Ford elaborated to the newspaper, saying he too has nothing to hide:

“It all stemmed from one thing: I wrote a bill to put in an oversight panel and when they issue a major fine or major penalty of any kind to close your doors, we would look at both sides of the evidence. (The nursing board) said if I would pull that bill they would reconsider the summary suspension on Bob Reynolds, and the state of Tennessee had 38 summary suspensions,” said Ford.

“They reconsidered that and I withdrew my bill. They can come after me all they want. They are welcome to investigate any aspect of my life,” he said. As of Tuesday morning, Ford said he had not heard from the TBI.

Both legislators spoke at length with WCYB News Channel 5 in the Tri-Cities area. Extended video interviews with Shipley can be viewed here, and Ford’s interview is here.