San Diego DUI criminal defense lawyers at www.SanDiegoDUIlawyer.com/survey learned that dozens of nurses convicted of crimes, including sex offenses and attempted murder, have remained fully licensed to practice in California for years before the state nursing board acted against them.
In over a hundred recent cases, the state didn’t seek to pull or restrict licenses until registered nurses racked up three or more criminal convictions. Twenty-four nurses had at least five.
In some cases, nurses with felony records continue to have spotless licenses — even while serving time behind bars.
A nurse sits in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., serving a nearly five-year sentence after admitting in 2006 that she allegedly bilked Medicare out of more than $3 million.
In her guilty plea, she confessed to allegedly billing for hundreds of visits to Southern California patients that she never made, charging for visits while she was out of the country and while she was gambling at Southern California casinos.
Yet according to the state of California, she is a nurse in good standing, free to work in any hospital or medical clinic.
Nursing board files and court pleadings, and online databases and newspaper clippings were reviewed. The review included an analysis of all accusations filed and disciplinary actions taken since 2002 — more than 2,000 in all, finding misdemeanors and felonies ranging from petty theft and disorderly conduct to assault, embezzlement and bail jumping.
Among the cases in which the board acted belatedly or not at all:
An Orange County man continued to renew his nursing license for years even after he was imprisoned for attempted murder.
A Redding nurse racked up 14 convictions from 1996, a year after she was licensed, through 2006, a year before the board caught up with her. The charges included driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and possession of a controlled substance.
A San Pedro man amassed convictions for receiving stolen property, possession of cocaine and possession of burglary tools before the board placed him on probation. He subsequently was arrested two more times, for possessing cocaine and a pipe to smoke it. In response, the board extended his probation.
A Calimesa nurse has a clean record despite a felony conviction for lewd and lascivious acts with a child.
“I’m completely blown away,” said Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego and an expert on professional licensing boards in California. “Nurses are rendering care to sick people, to vulnerable people. . . . This is a fundamental failure on the part of this board.”
California has the largest number of registered nurses in the nation. Hospitals and clinics rely on the website of the California Board of Registered Nursing, in part, when checking out job applicants because all accusations and disciplinary actions are posted there for public review.
If the nursing board’s website says that a convicted nurse has a clean record, D’Angelo Fellmeth said, “It’s like fraud. It’s consumer fraud.”
A large portion of the 343,000 active registered nurses escape the state’s scrutiny. The state began requiring applicants to submit their fingerprints in 1990, so that the board would be flagged by law enforcement agencies whenever a licensed nurse was arrested. But the rule does not apply to nurses licensed before then — a group that now numbers about 146,000.
California misses a second chance at catching errant nurses when they apply to renew their licenses every two years. Unlike many states, California does not ask nurses to disclose criminal convictions that occurred since the last time they applied.
Even California’s vocational nursing board, which oversees nurses with a lesser degree of training, requires renewing nurses to report convictions. California’s registered nurses are asked only to pay a fee and verify that they have completed continuing education courses.
As a result, the board must rely on complaints and anonymous tips to discover convictions among roughly 40% of its nurses.
The system has gaps. The board plans to ask the Legislature for permission to add a question about convictions to its renewal application. The board does not believe it has the authority to change the application on its own.
The state Department of Consumer Affairs, which provides support for all state licensing boards, also is considering asking the Legislature for permission to seek fingerprints from nurses and other health licensees who have not provided them.
The board is doing what it can with its limited budget and staff. It can’t pursue cases it doesn’t know about.
The board’s slow pace has potentially put patients at risk.
Some nurses with convictions for drug or alcohol-related crimes later were accused of taking drugs intended for patients.
Before one nurse lost her license, she was twice convicted of drunk driving, failed to complete a rehabilitation program and later appeared drunk at three separate nursing jobs, according to the board’s complaint against her.
The case of a different nurse convicted in 1994 of smuggling rock cocaine to her jailed husband was not resolved until 2003.
“The exceedingly serious criminal conduct that is the subject of this matter most certainly would have resulted in a revocation of her license” if the charges had been brought sooner, an administrative law judge wrote when the case ended. “No explanation is apparent for the significant delay.”
As a result, the judge gave the nurse probation.
Another serious case was similarly drawn out.
In April 1994, an Orange County jury convicted a man of the attempted murder of his wife. A judge later wrote that he “hit her on the head with a hard object, pushed her to the ground, put towels in her mouth and over her head and struck her head against the floor.” He was sentenced to life plus three years in prison.
The nursing board didn’t act until eight years later — after he had renewed his license repeatedly while in prison. His license finally was revoked in February 2003.
Many hospitals conduct their own criminal background checks. And, she said, one minor crime such as a drunk driving conviction may not indicate that a nurse shouldn’t be allowed to practice, a view shared by outside experts. Even so, multiple convictions generally warrant some sort of discipline.
The board could have found out about some nurses’ criminal histories or accusations against them by reviewing government databases.
By comparing the state’s Megan’s Law database, which lists registered sex offenders, with the state’s list of registered nurses, for instance, reporters immediately found three cases in which the names and addresses of sex offenders matched those of registered nurses with clean records.
Armed with additional information about the state’s nurses, such as birth dates, the board might find even more matches.
One of those in the Megan’s Law database was a man who was convicted in 1989 of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and in 1997 for failure to register as a sex offender.
The nursing board is unaware that any sex offenders were licensed in good standing. They could match the state’s list of registered nurses against the federal government’s database of health providers banned from Medicare and find examples of banned nurses that the board has never disciplined, one of whom was found guilty of patient abuse or neglect.
The conviction of the person in federal prison, is listed on the U.S. Internal Revenue Service website as one of its significant healthcare fraud prosecutions of 2007.
Sometimes the board doesn’t act upon convictions in California until another state does.
In May 1989, a man was convicted of committing a lewd act on a child in San Diego. Six years later, the California board issued him a nursing license.
In September 2006, Arizona’s nursing board rejected his application for a license based on his California conviction and other factors.
Nearly a year later, California filed an accusation against Lutzow, citing the Arizona denial.
In April, the board put him on three years’ probation. One of the conditions: He must practice as a nurse in California. For more information go to www.sandiegodrunkdrivingattorney.net.