- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Two years ago this week, certified nurse’s aide Ophelia Tarpeh and a 61-year old woman in her care took a cab from an Annandale nursing home into Washington for a dental appointment.

They were dropped off at the wrong address, so Ms. Tarpeh pushed the woman — who is paralyzed on the right side of her body and unable to talk — in a wheelchair with no footrests to nearby National Rehabilitation Hospital.

By the time they arrived, the nursing home resident was screaming and moaning, her right big toe was cut “down to the bone,” court records show. The woman’s shoeless foot had been dragged on a concrete sidewalk and asphalt street the length of nearly three football fields, and doctors at the Washington Hospital Center had to amputate the toe three days later, authorities said.

Months after the amputation, the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington filed charges against Ms. Tarpeh, and prosecutors recently announced that they won a misdemeanor criminal negligence conviction that landed her a 180-day jail sentence, with all but three weeks suspended.

But records show that in 2009, Virginia nursing regulators looked into the same incident and cited “insufficient evidence” in a decision that has allowed Ms. Tarpeh to keep the state certification she’ll need to continue working in Virginia.

How two jurisdictions came to such different conclusions remains unclear. For now, Ms. Tarpeh retains her certification in spite of her criminal conviction.

“We felt we had sufficient evidence to get a conviction for a crime,” said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline N. Schesnol of the D.C. Office of Inspector General Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

When Virginia regulators decided there wasn’t enough evidence to revoke or restrict Ms. Tarpeh’s certification, she already was facing criminal charges in the District, records show. But it’s unclear whether Virginia officials even knew about the case.

In interviews, officials with the Virginia Board of Nursing said they were limited by privacy rules on what they could discuss about Ms. Tarpeh’s case. In general, the officials said, the board may not have had the same information as prosecutors in the District.

Jay P. Douglas, the board’s executive director, said her enforcement staff plans to take a second look at the case in light of Ms. Tarpeh’s conviction. She said Tuesday that investigators are pulling court records in Washington.

Meanwhile, Ms. Tarpeh’s attorneys say Virginia officials got it right in the first place, adding that their client maintains her innocence and is appealing the conviction.

Ms. Tarpeh expresses regret that the victim was injured in this incident,” defense attorneys Emmanuel D. Akpan and Ubong E. Akpan said in a statement to The Washington Times. “However, this case is about whether a crime was committed, and we believe that the overwhelming evidence is that a criminal act did not occur.”

The lawyers also said they believed that the trial judge made errors and that the conviction will be overturned on appeal.

Ms. Tarpeh was not sanctioned by the Virginia Board and currently maintains her CNA license,” they added.

Ms. Schesnol disagreed: “Not only did the government believe a crime was committed, but the finder of fact, the judge, agreed beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

A check Tuesday of a database of nurse’s aides in Virginia shows Ms. Tarpeh’s certification is active. At her sentencing, a judge ordered one year of supervised probation and barred her from working with “vulnerable adults” for one year, along with a requirement that she perform 100 hours of community service.

In addition, prosecutors can forward information about the case to the Department of Health and Human Services, which could separately issue an order to exclude her from working at facilities that receive federal funds.

The last action taken by the Virginia Board of Nursing came about 18 months ago.

The board sent Ms. Tarpeh a letter on Sept. 28, 2009, saying it received allegations that she “failed to ensure the health and safety of Resident A while transporting her to a dental appointment” on Feb. 23, 2009. That’s the same day prosecutors in Washington say the nursing home resident’s toe was badly injured.

In addition, the board said it received another allegation about a purported incident at a different nursing home where Ms. Tarpeh once worked.

After an informal conference on Oct. 22, 2009, the board sent Ms. Tarpeh a letter saying officials weren’t going to take action against her.

“The agency subordinate is of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence of a violation of the Nurse Practice Act or the Board of Nursing Regulations” the letter stated. “Therefore, no action will be taken against your certificate to practice as a nurse aide.”

That finding stands in sharp contrast to language in a memo filed by prosecutors before Ms. Tarpeh’s sentencing earlier this month. In that memo, Ms. Schesnol said Ms. Tarpeh’s breach of trust was “extremely egregious.”

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