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Davidson Co. DA: No Charges Against Reps. Ford, Shipley

Press Release from the Office of Davidson County District Attorney, Jan. 9, 2012:

Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson today announced he has completed a review of the investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into the actions of two state lawmakers and employees of the Tennessee Department of Health. Johnson says the report shows that while there were questionable actions made by some individuals, there was no evidence that these actions could sustain criminal charges.

On June 22, 2011, General Johnson asked for a full-scale TBI investigation into the actions of State Representatives Tony Shipley and Dale Ford, as well as employees of the Department of Health. The TBI received complaints about possible irregularities in actions taken by Ford and Shipley in collaboration with certain Department of Health employees. This complaint was then brought to the attention of General Johnson. The investigation focused on whether the lawmakers illegally pressured the Board of Nursing to reinstate three nurse practitioners it had previously suspended from practice.

For some time, TBI agents in East Tennessee have been conducting an investigation into deaths of patients of the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Clinic in Johnson City, Tennessee. The Department of Health was made aware of the seriousness of these allegations, and commenced its own investigation into the nurses’ activities. Because of its own findings, on March 11, 2010, the Tennessee Board of Nursing took emergency action against the three nurses, who were accused of over-prescribing medications at the clinic. The report of the nurses’ actions was additionally reviewed independently by a peer panel that also recommended they be disciplined. All three were summarily suspended within the guidelines of the Administrative Procedures Act.

Over the next six months, lawyers representing the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) of the Department of Health and the nurse practitioners engaged in extensive settlement negotiations in an effort to resolve the serious complaints. Eventually all three nurses, along with their lawyers, signed consent orders, which contained numerous factual findings of unprofessional conduct that justified discipline. The three agreed not to contest the summary suspension of their licenses and to pay substantial civil penalties and the costs of the proceedings. In essence, the nurses were placed on a form of strict probation designed to allow them to resume practice in the future, provided they met numerous terms and conditions. Although the nurses and their lawyers had agreed to the discipline established by the Board, Representatives Ford and Shipley sought to overturn those orders and contacted various employees of the Department of Health in that effort. In addition, Representative Ford filed a bill that would have created an additional committee tasked with reviewing certain types of disciplinary actions taken against license holders. And Representative Shipley sought to stall legislation that would extend the life of the Nursing Board.

In an apparent response to legislative pressure, at the Nursing Board meeting on May 5, 2011, one of the OGC attorneys presented new consent orders that would essentially dismiss all previous disciplinary actions against the nurses. The attorney claimed that there were defects in the previous orders, and that there was compelling new evidence that justified setting aside the disciplinary orders. Because of these assertions, the Board voted unanimously to rescind the previous discipline and to reinstate the licenses of all three nurses. However, there is no record of any procedural defects or compelling new evidence.

“The Board of Nursing is responsible for protecting the public from the dangers of unfit, incompetent, or unprofessional nurses,” says Johnson. “In this case, the Board did precisely that, only to be subjected to heavy-handed tactics by two state legislators, aided and abetted by some former employees of the Department of Health. Regrettably, both the Board and the Department of Health caved to perceived political pressure and set aside the previous discipline that all parties had agreed to. This is not how government is supposed to work, but it is not a crime since these lawmakers did not personally benefit from their actions nor did they individually have the actual power to harm the Board, the Department, or its employees. In the end, this is a case of political hardball, but not political corruption.”

“Any time there is an issue of possible public corruption, it warrants our further investigation, as we take these complaints very seriously,” says TBI Director Mark Gwyn. “A number of TBI agents have been actively engaged for some time in interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents as part of this investigation. In addition, we have consulted frequently with representatives of the Davidson County District Attorney’s office, and the State Attorney General’s office.”

Several of the principals at the Department of Health left that office after the two legislators initiated their involvement. Others left at the conclusion of the TBI probe. The initial TBI investigation into the deaths of patients of the clinic was launched in 2005 in the 1st Judicial District. That investigation is still open and under review by District Attorney General Tony Clark. That probe is not affected by the findings of the review of the lawmakers’ actions.

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