Two attorneys for the state licensing board for physical therapists are being terminated after withering criticism from state lawmakers over the board’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.
The Louisiana Physical Therapy Board on Thursday moved in a special meeting to terminate the contracts for of its general counsel, Courtney Newton, as well as its prosecuting attorney, George Papale, both of whom have handled complaints of sexual misconduct cases against licensed physical therapists.
Members of the state's Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday skewered the board for failing to revoke licenses after physical therapists settled, and in some cases even admitted, charges of sexual misconduct with patients.
They include 54-year-old Philippe Veeters, a Baton Rouge practitioner facing multiple criminal counts of sexual battery after nine women, all former patients, came forward with sexual misconduct allegations. Veeters' license was suspended for nine months in November.
Newton, the general counsel — and daughter of Papale, the prosecuting attorney — defended the board’s disciplinary actions, pointing to due process requirements and concerns about tougher punishments being challenged in court.
Two women who accused Veeters of sexually assaulting them testified to lawmakers on Wednesday that Papale stymied investigations into their allegations. Both also said Papale treated them with hostility and left them feeling belittled and dismissed.
Those charges angered Sen. J.P. Morrell and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, both Democrats from New Orleans, who blasted Papale — who wasn’t present — and called for him to be held accountable. Morrell threatened to press colleagues to dissolve the board or strip its authority if their concerns weren't addressed.
Morrell also said Papale's involvement with other complaints of serious sexual misconduct that were settled with temporary license suspensions raised further concerns about the board's handling of past allegations and treatment of victims.
"(Papale) has problems, real significant problems," Morrell said Wednesday. “The idea in a profession that has such intimate contact with people (...) the idea that people could do such horrific things, and apparently they all get probation because you don’t revoke anybody.”
The board has sanctioned several other physical therapists accused of sexual misconduct with suspensions or probationary periods but has never, according to Morrell, stripped someone of their license over such complaints.
Newton, who typically advises the board at its meetings, was not in attendance at the special meeting Thursday in Lafayette. Chairwoman Julie Harris said she asked Newton not to attend, as she interpreted Morrell and Peterson as saying the board hadn’t received “proper legal advice.”
In a series of motions, the board voted to terminate the contracts of both Papale and Newton, and to issue a competitive solicitation for the services they are currently providing. Papale said in an interview he would resign, since he planned to retire before the end of the year. Newton did not return a call.
Neither Newton nor Papale were originally hired through a competitive application process. Such a process isn’t legally required for the positions, according to a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office.
The board’s executive director, Charlotte Martin, said the contract allows the board to terminate it any time.
Papale said he plans to attend the next one on May 29 to correct “misinformation.” He flatly denied he had advised the board to drop the investigation, as the women who testified Wednesday at the State Capitol claimed.
The Advocate, which typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, is not naming either woman.
One of the women told state senators on Wednesday that Martin and Harris continued looking into her complaint against the advice of their lawyer, Papale.
An attorney for the other woman provided senators with a copy of an email Papale wrote Martin in which he repeatedly complained that the victim had retained a lawyer, which he called "unnecessary and burdensome," and wrote he was "not inclined to proceed further in regards to (the victim's) complaint" unless she dropped the lawyer or explained her "need for legal counsel."
“I can assure you I was always respectful to both of those ladies,” Papale said Thursday. “That’s not to say I can’t learn something about being more sensitive.”
Papale said he has worked for numerous other licensing boards -- such as those for social workers, nutritionists and private investigators – and in every case he was invited to do so.
“At one time I was representing five or six of them at the same time, never solicited any of them. I guess that’s a good thing, because by word of mouth people like my work,” Papale said.
Newton was given a contract after the previous executive director asked Papale if he thought his daughter might want to work for the board, Papale said.
Advocate staff writers Grace Toohey and Bryn Stole contributed to this report.