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Dozens of Criminal Registered Nurses Identified by California Regulators

Fingerprint checks of thousands of California nurses not previously subject to background checks have turned up dozens of convictions of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The checks are now required in part because of investigations by ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times.

This story was co-published with the Los Angeles Times.

Dozens of registered nurses who have been convicted of serious crimes including murder, sex offenses, robbery and assault have been identified by California regulators reviewing newly required fingerprints from tens of thousands of caregivers.

The state Board of Registered Nursing expanded its review of nurses' criminal records after an October 2008 story by Propublica and the Los Angeles Times found that regulators often didn't know about nurses' convictions and didn't act quickly once they learned of them.

At the time, nurses who had received licenses before 1990 were exempt from providing fingerprints, which are used to flag arrests for regulators. Since March, the board has required those nurses to submit their fingerprints.

Most of the crimes turned up are misdemeanors, such as driving under the influence, petty theft or fraud. But the records as of November also included two murders, two solicitations for murder, an attempted murder, a manslaughter and a vehicular homicide. There also were 19 convictions for assault, including five felonies, and 39 for sex offenses, three of them felonies.

The nursing board has referred at least 13 cases to the attorney general to start disciplinary proceedings against the nurses involved. Regulators won't release the names or details of any nurses' crimes unless public accusations are filed.

The board closed its investigation into one murder conviction without taking disciplinary action. The nurse had been convicted of second-degree murder in 1974 after shooting his sister's abusive boyfriend four times, according to board records. He was initially denied a license. But the board granted him one in 1987, finding him sufficiently rehabilitated, and placed him on three years' probation, which he completed successfully.

Of the 1,900 conviction reports sent to the board, about 1,300 have been closed without action because of the crime's age or nature. The remaining ones await further investigation.

The board has taken disciplinary action against only one of the convicted licensees. David Trower's license was suspended on an emergency basis after the board learned that he had been convicted four times of drunken driving between 1996 and 2008. An accusation to permanently revoke or restrict his license is pending.

Trower could not be located for comment.

The review by ProPublica and the Times last year found more than 115 cases in which the state did not seek to discipline nurses until they had racked up three or more criminal convictions. It also turned up cases in which nurses with felony records continued to have spotless licenses -- sometimes while behind bars.

Nurse Haydee Parungao, for example, was sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison after admitting in 2006 that she had bilked Medicare out of more than $3 million. The board filed a formal accusation against her three years later. The case is pending, but her license expired in November 2008.

Other examples included an Orange County nurse who continued to renew his license for years even after he was imprisoned for attempted murder and a Redding nurse who racked up 14 convictions over a decade 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.

Not all nurses convicted of crimes automatically lose their licenses.

Background Checks

In 1990, the board began requiring nurses applying for licenses to provide their fingerprints -- the first nursing board in the country to do so. But nurses who already had their licenses at that time were not required to submit prints. That group now numbers 138,500.

As of Dec. 16, nearly 64,000 nurses in that group had submitted prints. More than 400 nurses' licenses have been put on hold because they haven't complied with the new rule. The rest have not yet renewed their licenses.

The background checks are part of the board's continuing overhaul of its operations following reports by ProPublica and the Times about lengthy delays in investigating and disciplining nurses accused of wrongdoing.

The newly discovered convictions are "opportunities to do our job that we wouldn't have had," said Paul Riches, deputy director for enforcement and compliance at the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees all health licensing boards. It's been "a very positive thing," he said.

The fingerprinting effort is being expanded to include all licensed health professionals in the state. Until now each of the state's health regulatory agencies set its own rules about who had to submit prints. Close to a third of the state's 937,100 licensed healthcare workers had not been screened as of December 2008. Even within the state, the rules were inconsistent for different groups of health professionals.

Boards overseeing these workers are at various stages of collecting fingerprints.

Riches said the process has been challenging for the nursing board, which is whittling away at a backlog and was forced to upgrade its databases to avoid entering every report manually.

"With every large group of people, you're going to get a broad spectrum of behavior," he said. "The priority for us is dealing with it."

Related story: Nursing Board Follows Up on Our Nursing Stories

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