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TIMES INVESTIGATION

Criminal past is no bar to nursing

Dozens have kept their state licenses for years despite convictions.

October 05, 2008|Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein | Special to The Times

Dozens of registered 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, a Times investigation found.

The newspaper, in a joint effort with the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, found more than 115 recent cases in which the state didn't seek to pull or restrict licenses until 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.

Nurse Haydee Parungao sits in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., serving a nearly five-year sentence after admitting in 2006 that she bilked Medicare out of more than $3 million.

In her guilty plea, Parungao confessed to 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.

Reporters reviewed stacks of nursing board files and court pleadings, consulted online databases and newspaper clippings and conducted interviews with nurses and experts in several states. The investigation included an analysis of all accusations filed and disciplinary actions taken by the board since 2002 -- more than 2,000 in all. The offenses included 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 was convicted 14 separate times from 1996 -- a year after she was licensed -- through 2006 on charges including several instances of driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and drug possession.

* A San Pedro man amassed convictions for receiving stolen property, as well as possession of cocaine and 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."

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Escaping scrutiny

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 top nursing board official says her agency is taking the newspaper's findings seriously but was unable to say why individual cases were missed.

"We're just really putting our arms around the issue," said Heidi Goodman, the board's assistant executive director. "It's important. It's vital. It is what we do. That's our mandate: Public protection."

The newspaper's investigation found the board's screening process to be flawed in two significant ways.

First, it allows a large portion of the 343,000 active registered nurses in California to escape 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, Goodman said the board must rely on complaints and anonymous tips to discover convictions among roughly 40% of its nurses.

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