State Rep. Tony Shipley, who is under investigation in a case that questions his dealings with the state Board of Nursing, has been named chairman of a legislative committee that has oversight of all such health-related boards.
Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he views the appointment as a display of confidence in his integrity and innocence by legislative leaders. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation should now publicly state that the probe has turned up no wrongdoing by either him or Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, who is also under investigation, he said.
“There’s nothing there and I believe they know that,” said Shipley last week. “It’s not Shipley that’s stinking. It’s other things that are stinking now.”
TBI spokesman Jason Locke said as a matter of general policy the agency launches investigations at the request of a district attorney general and, similarly, would close an investigation and issue a statement of exoneration only with the assent of the district attorney general involved.
“The TBI investigation was originated at the request of District Attorney General Torry Johnson (of Nashville). It is, at this time, still active and ongoing,” Locke said in an email response to a reporter’s inquiries about the Ford-Shipley investigation.
The investigation, initiated in June, revolves around ultimately successful efforts by Shipley and Ford to have the Board of Nursing reinstate the licenses of three upper East Tennessee nurse practitioners.
The lawmakers readily acknowledge they worked diligently to get the licenses reinstated by meeting with officials and introducing bills that could impact the board. The investigation apparently focuses on whether their actions went so far as to be considered the crime of “official misconduct.”
Shipley and Ford say they were simply helping constituents who were unfairly treated, losing their license on the basis of false contentions and without a chance to present their side of the story. The nurse practitioners were accused of providing inappropriate care to patients at the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City.
The Board of Nursing, which revoked the nursing licenses and later reinstated them, is attached to the state Department of Health.
In seeking reinstatement, Shipley said he met with Susan Cooper, who was then commissioner of health; Dale Kelley, who was then Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative liaison; and two Department of Health attorneys who have since left their positions.
All those people ultimately agreed that the license revocations were unfair and should be reconsidered, he said, and now all are no longer in their positions.
Also departed is David Himmelreich, a Department of Health attorney who Shipley described as lead prosecutor of the nurses in proceedings before the board.
“Why are all the executive branch principals suddenly gone? At some point, we’ll want to look into all this,” said Shipley.
Andrea Turner, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said Himmelreich retired from the department effective June 24. The TBI investigation began June 22, according to an earlier statement from TBI officials.
Albert Partee, former general counsel for the department, resigned Sept. 19 and transferred to the state Attorney General’s office, while department attorney Allison Cleaves resigned effective Oct. 7, Turner said.
Shipley said Cleaves was the first person involved in the prosecution of the nurses to point out mistakes in the license revocation process and Partee had concurred.
Cooper, who was initially appointed health commissioner by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, stepped down from the office and Dr. John Dreyzehner was appointed by Haslam to succeed her on Sept. 2.
“It is not out of the ordinary for changes in department leadership to occur with the appointment of a new commissioner,” Turner wrote in an email.
Kelley resigned as Haslam’s legislative liaison on July 1, but continues to work on special projects for the administration.
Shipley, meanwhile, has become chairman of the newly created Joint Subcommittee on Education, Health and General Welfare. The panel, which held its first meeting earlier this month, is made up of six senators and six representatives who are also members of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees.
The committees handle all “sunset bills,” which literally decide the life and death of all state boards and commissions. Under state law, each such entity must have its existence renewed periodically by the Legislature or it will cease to exist. The committees also make recommendations on any changes that should be made in laws impacting a given board or commission. Shipley’s committee jurisdiction includes all boards in the health professions, including the Board of Nursing.
Asked about the appointment of Shipley, House Government Operations Committee Chairman Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, said it could fairly be viewed as an endorsement of the Kingsport lawmaker.
“I have full confidence in Tony,” said Cobb.
In response to a reporter’s request for comment, House Speaker Beth Harwell sent this email:
“It has been my policy that the appointment of the chairs for the subcommittees is at the discretion of Chairman Cobb, and I support his decisions.”