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Arkansas hospital board learns doctor convicted in sex case

MURFREESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Board members who oversee Pike County Memorial Hospital may pull the contract of a newly hired doctor after learning he was convicted eight years ago of possessing child pornography.

Dr. Lonnie Joseph Parker served more than four years in prison for the conviction. He was scheduled to start work at the hospital March 23, but the board voted to put Parker's start on hold while it decides whether he should work there at all. Parker informed the board of his conviction.

The hospital has only one full-time physician, Dr. Hiram Ward, 82, who came out of retirement to keep the facility running.

Ward and hospital administrator Rosemary Fritts say that Parker was wrongly convicted and that the 32-bed hospital should hire him.

"I don't think the hospital will last long enough (to find someone else)," Ward said. "I think the choice they have is either take this doctor or close the hospital."

Fritts said the rural hospital searched for a year for a new doctor and Parker was the only physician who would agree to relocate to Murfreesboro.

A town hall meeting was planned for Sunday at Murfreesboro High School, when Parker is to explain why he believes he should have the job.

Three doctors left Pike County Memorial in December 2006, and the hospital has been struggling ever since. Ward returned in January 2007, but says he is looking to return to retirement.

Ward works three or four day a week, getting temporary help from other doctors.

The board found Parker an attractive hire because he grew up in nearby Sevier County and agreed to work for less than the going rate. The panel voted unanimously in January to hire him.

Attitudes changed after members learned of the conviction.

"As bad as we need a doctor in Murfreesboro, should we be hiring a convicted felon?" board member Rusty Silvey said. "His side is, he was very much wrongly convicted, and he may have well been, but the board doesn't feel like we can act as the appellate court to reverse that. We're not qualified."

Parker claims he collected child pornography on the advice of FBI agents to help track the people producing it. He made his case on the "Montel Williams Show" after his conviction in 2000, though his numerous court appeals failed.

Parker graduated from Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn., in neuroscience and in 1997 began his residency at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

Court records show U.S. customs agents approached him in January 1998. Parker told the agents he had been in touch with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and FBI agents in Minnesota and Little Rock since his daughter was sent child pornography images on the home computer.

Parker said he earlier called the FBI in Little Rock and was told to take any images he had to the FBI office. Agents confirmed the request in court. Parker said he didn't follow through because he was working such long hours.

Parker said he has records that weren't available at trial to show he contacted the FBI in Rochester and St. Paul, Minn. He gives a full account of his defense on an Internet site he maintains.

Parker served 57 months in prison, and says several hospitals have turned him away because of his record. He spent two years working at a walk-in clinic in Eureka Springs before seeking the Pike County job.

Fritts said that regardless of Parker's record, he served his sentence and can now help the hospital.

"I just felt like the man, whether he was guilty or not, he already paid a high price. He's suffered for 10 years. And what's in his past has nothing to do with his ability to practice medicine. As badly as I need a doctor, who am I to say, 'Hey we don't need him.'"