Community Watchdog investigations prompt convictions, audits, new state law and more

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Community Watchdog investigations resulted in criminal convictions, policy changes, state audits, a new state law and much more in 2017.

The year started with two different guilty pleas. Former Greene Valley Developmental Center employee Alysia Prater pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated assault in January and as part of her sentence can never work with vulnerable people again. Prosecutors accused her of slapping a woman with intellectual disabilities in the face with a shoe. The allegation initially did not result in a criminal charge until our investigation raised questions about the handling of abuse cases.

Former Hawkins County Memorial Gardens owner Vickie Ringley pleaded guilty in connection to her theft, money laundering and forgery case in Hawkins County in February. The woman is now in the process of paying restitution as part of her sentence. After our investigation uncovered Ringley’s bad business practices, hundreds of people came forward with complaints.

“I’m very sorry,” Ringley told the judge at the time. “Also, I’d like to say God has forgiven and I hope that (the victims) can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

That same month, several school districts promised to do better after our review of 1,000 public records found a third of area schools failed state-required safety drills. Both Kingsport City Schools and the Carter County Board of Education changed district policies as a result.

“We always are striving for 100% compliance, whether it’s with the law or a policy and when it doesn’t happen, we want to take the opportunity to learn from it and figure out why it didn’t happen and analyze it,” Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy True said about our findings.

Carter County also changed its school alcohol policy after we discovered teachers could show up to school with up to a .08 blood alcohol level.

“It does concern me,” Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward said at the time. “It does concern me to the point that I think it’s probably too high. Now that it’s been brought to our attention, I think it’s something we need to have a discussion and we will.”

Speaking of schools and student safety, state auditors are expected to release a report in the coming weeks about the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury says the report is now under final review. Lawmakers called for the review after our investigation found more than two dozen districts where administrators paddled those students at a higher rate than their peers.

“I feel like if it’s done properly, it’s good, but these times are different and we need to take a look at it and see where we are,” Sen. Rusty Crowe (R), TN-District 3, said at the time.

Sen. Crowe also took a look at the problem of drug-addicted medical workers allowed to continue working despite documented concerns. With the help of Rep. John Holsclaw (R), TN-District 4, Sen. Crowe passed a new law meant to better protect patients. The Tennessee Board of Nursing also significantly increased its number of emergency nurse suspensions following our investigation. Lawmakers are expected to consider additional legislation next session amid more concerns from prosecutors.

In October, area governments fixed more than 100 unrepaired safety recalls, most on city and county police cars, after we identified hundreds of unfixed recalls. Several agencies changed protocol and policies as result of our discovery to make sure they don’t miss any more recalls in the future.

“You all had made us aware before our manufacturers did,” Kingsport Assistant City Manager Ryan McReynolds said. “It’s eye-opening to know the lag when recalls occur and when the customer, who is us, are made notice. We’ll be working each of those vehicles in.”

From missing repairs to missing equipment, Mountain Home VA Medical Center pledged to do more to keep track of items taxpayers bought after our investigation found the facility is missing almost 1,300 pieces of equipment, which is more items than any other VA facility in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“Every facility has an opportunity for improvement,” Director Dean Borsos said. “We have some challenges that we need to work through and we have other opportunities for improvement that we need to work through and we appreciate you pointing that out to us and we’ll take a close look at that and we’ll work on that and see if we can make that even better.”

Our investigation into missing police guns found officers across the state need to do more to protect their guns. Not only did we learn one of those guns ended up at an aggravated assault crime scene in Johnson City, we also discovered thieves stole many of the guns from officers’ cars.

Just last month, lawmakers called for a statewide review of the Tennessee Board of Regents and Northeast State Community College after we found the agency in charge of oversight knew Northeast State’s financial survival was in question as far back as 2013. That review is now in progress.

Meanwhile, a long-awaited water project in Sullivan County is also in progress. Crews broke ground in the Denton Valley Community in October on a water project that will bring clean drinking water and fire protection to more than 110 homes.

“I think that’s what totally saved the project,” Intermont Utility District President Larry Barker said of our reporting on the once-stalled project.

Our findings in another investigation could impact the sentencing of a former Kingsport lieutenant. Photos and public records raise questions about Ralph Cline’s use of a city vehicle and his time reporting and overtime pay in the months before he pleaded guilty to patronizing prostitution.

Our analysis of public records also raised questions about taxpayers’ funding of $87 million in non-emergency trips to the ER for TennCare patients, public housing tenants who are capable of working but remain unemployed and underemployed and Science Hill High School’s underperforming International Baccalaureate program, which the district is now phasing out.

Our investigation into a patient’s fall inside an operating room provided answers to the woman’s children after they spent a year trying to find out details on their own.

“I guess I feel like I’ve taken care of her now as best I could,” Karen Mazzei said. “I can rest better. Hopefully, she can too.”

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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