A state legislator insisted Tuesday he did nothing wrong in pressuring health officials to restore the licenses of three nurses who had been accused of over-prescribing medication and contributing to the deaths of two patients at a clinic where his sister worked.
“If I did anything wrong, I probably should be in jail,” said Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, who contends the nurses were innocent of the charges against them. “But I’m going to tell you, I haven’t done anything unethical or illegal or wrong, and they can investigate me all they want.”
Ford acknowledged he introduced legislation aimed at curtailing the power of the state Board of Nursing in reaction to the controversy surrounding the Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City. He said he agreed to drop that bill during this year’s session, when state officials said they would reconsider the evidence in the case. The board later reinstated the nurses’ licenses.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into whether any wrongdoing occurred. The TBI said the investigation centers on whether any state lawmakers or state health officials were guilty of criminal misconduct. Authorities wouldn’t name the officials under investigation.
Ford, who led the fight on behalf of the nurses, said the TBI hadn’t yet contacted him. Another lawmaker, Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he is cooperating with the investigation. Along with Jones, Shipley was the most vigorous in fighting for the nurses.
"I can confirm there is a TBI investigation going on,” Shipley said in a statement to the media. “I am cooperating fully with them, and I expect this matter to be resolved in short order. Due to the fact this is an ongoing legal matter, I cannot comment any further at this time."
To the Kingsport Times-News, Shipley said, "The story should be 'legislator does job,' you know, as opposed to suggesting that there was anything inappropriate." He said he has agreed to meet with a TBI investigator next week.
Ford said his sister worked as a lab technician with the nurses at the Appalachian Medical Center. The clinic closed after the nurses’ licenses were suspended. Ford said his wife was a patient at the clinic.
Asked whether he became personally engaged in the case because his sister lost her job, Ford said, “Absolutely not. The board was running roughshod over some of my constituents. If I don’t step up and fight for my constituents, I’m very, very sorry.”
According to state records, the Board of Nursing disciplined the nurses — Bobby Reynolds II, David Stout Jr. and Tina Killebrew — last year based on allegations that they over-prescribed medicine. According to the allegations, they "caused patients harm” and, in the cases of two patients who were not named, “contributed to their deaths."
Fourteen months later in May, after the three nurses presented evidence on their behalf, the board dropped all disciplinary action and restored their licenses.
In an article in the Kingsport Times-News at the time, Shipley claimed credit for the reversal. He said he was the "rascal behind the scenes that made it happen."
Shipley described himself and Ford as "red-faced furious" with the Board of Nursing.
"These nurse practitioners had been summarily dismissed, and their lives destroyed, and driven to the brink of bankruptcy," Shipley told the Times-News. "Evidence that could have proven them innocent" was overlooked, he said.
"As an officer of the Government Operations Committee, we're tasked with the responsibility of extending the life of boards and commissions, and I took the position of blocking the extension of the board until such time that they listened to the argument that we cared to present," Shipley said.
Ford said his legislation would have set up a three-member legislative committee to oversee the Board of Nursing’s disciplinary actions. Ford said a Health Department official told him the board would reconsider the case against the nurses if he would withdraw his bill. Ford said he couldn’t recall the name of the official.
“He said, ‘If you would withdraw that, they’re willing to take another look at this evidence.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll be glad to.’ They didn’t say if you’ll withdraw this, we’ll give them their license back, nothing to that effect. They said that they were willing to look at the evidence.
“They did the right thing. When they took a second look at that evidence, they caught things that they didn’t catch the first time through. They did the right thing, and I did the right thing. If there’s anything wrong with that, I don’t understand it.”
As for the focus of the TBI probe, Ford said, “I guess that’s what they’re investigating. I don’t know.”
The state Health Department said in a statement that its officials are cooperating with the TBI.
"We are providing information and responding to requests as needed to assist in this matter. It is inappropriate for the department to offer further comment at this time."