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Louisiana State Capitol

An attorney for the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board fired last month after state lawmakers blasted his handling of sexual assault complaints against state-licensed physical therapists has fired back in a lengthy letter.

George Papale, who worked for the board for 16 years, describes the May 15 Senate committee hearing in the letter — addressed to state Senate President John Alario — as “an ambush” and calls the withering criticism of him and the Physical Therapy Board “unwarranted and undeserving," defending his decades-long career investigating complaints for state licensing boards.

At that hearing, state Sen. JP Morrell and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson ripped the Louisiana Physical Therapy Board over its adjudication of sexual misconduct allegations against physical therapists and its treatment of victims. Morrell and Peterson, both New Orleans Democrats, singled out Papale’s role in particular and called on him to be “held accountable.”

The board came under particular fire for its investigation of Philippe Veeters, a Baton Rouge physical therapist who’s since been arrested on multiple counts of sexual battery after at least nine women came forward with similar allegations of abuse under the guise of treatment.

Two women who’ve accused Veeters of assaulting them during treatment testified to lawmakers about a complaint process they described as drawn-out and leaving them feeling trivialized, diminished and re-victimized.

Veeters’ license was suspended for nine months by the Board under a consent order in December that settled one complaint against him, though two additional complaints to the licensing board are now pending.

Papale’s letter calls on Alario to investigate Morrell's and Peterson’s conduct, which Papale describes as "unlawful and unprofessional.” The letter, which runs 24 pages with an additional 43 attached exhibits, also lays out his response to specific accusations leveled against him.

Alario said he has not yet read the letter from Papale and declined to comment further.

Papale said the claims at the May 15 hearing — at which Papale was not present — were made "without investigation into the validity of the complaints nor a basic understanding of administrative law, processes or procedure.”

The hearing was scheduled to consider a relatively routine bill about the Physical Therapy Board’s data collection. Papale accused the committee of being “intentionally misleading” about its purpose to orchestrate an "ambush."

State senators sharply questioned how Veeters, a former co-owner of Dutch Physical Therapy, could still maintain his professional license despite the severity and scope of the allegations against him.

Morrell, in particular, questioned the board’s handling of prior sexual misconduct complaints against other physical therapists, many of which were settled with license suspensions or probation, and pointed to Papale as a common thread in what he deemed a problematic pattern.

Morrell asserted at the hearing that he couldn't find any instances where physical therapists' licenses were revoked after credible cases of sexual misconduct.

That is not true, Papale wrote, pointing to a 2005 case against physical therapist John Schmidt, who eventually agreed to surrender his license in the face of board investigations.

That case was not previously listed on the Board's website showing punishment orders against physical therapists. However, as of this week, four decisions in Schmidt's case were available online.

The Louisiana Physical Therapy Board terminated its contracts with Papale and fellow attorney Courtney Newton, who’d served for several years as the board’s general counsel, at a hastily called emergency meeting the day after the hearing. Newton is Papale's daughter.

Papale responded in the letter that due process protections for license holders and state court decisions force state boards to move slowly and sometimes cautiously, but he’d taken steps to prevent Veeters’ license from being reinstated while the criminal cases remained pending.

The board’s public order suspending Veeters in December 2018 helped trigger the wave of complaints against the physical therapist and encouraged other women to come forward, Papale contends. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office arrested Veeters for the first time two months later.

“What the record truly reflects is that the publication and reporting of the Dec. 5, 2018 consent order with Veeters was the catalyst for a chain reaction of the latter filed complaints," Papale wrote.

He said he always wanted to fully investigate the complaints into Veeters, something the two women who testified at the hearing disputed based on their experiences.

After Papale became a central part of the discussion at the May 15 hearing, senators requested he testify at a follow-up hearing two weeks later. But Papale wrote he was later told by committee staffers that his presence wasn’t required.

When Papale arrived at the May 29 hearing prepared to address the criticism, Peterson cut him off, telling Papale to strictly limit his testimony to the bill about data collection.

"This committee was only interested in its own agenda to discredit the Board and its attorneys based on false accusations and a callous disregard to the accurate and legal explanations tendered by the board’s former general counsel," Papale wrote. "My reputation and that of Courtney Newton have been unjustly and irrevocably tarnished.”

Papale also contends that the harsh criticism by politicians and the calls for tougher sanctions on physical therapists amounted to an improper meddling in the board's responsibilities.

Peterson did not respond to calls for comment. Morrell declined to comment on specific attacks from Papale, but stood by his questions and comments in the hearings.

"The findings of the committee, during both hearings, speak for itself," said Morrell. "I encourage the public to watch the proceedings in their entirety and come to their own conclusions."

The attorneys for the two women who testified at the hearing about their experiences during the Board's investigation of their complaints over Veeters said they found the letter distasteful.

“This is reflective of Mr. Papale's character to deflect blame … instead of focusing on the true problem," said Sarah Wagar Hickman, an attorney for the first woman whose complaint ended in Veeters' suspension. Hickman said her client once again feels like she has to defend herself, and said she now understands why victims of sexual abuse often do not come forward.

The Advocate does not typically identify victims of sexual assault.

Morgan Lamandre, the attorney for the second victim whose case remains under investigation by the board, said she is glad to see the Physical Therapy Board — after terminating Papale — has responded to concerns from lawmakers and has begun to look into improving its sexual assault investigations. 

"It's disconcerting that Mr. Papale seems to think he is the victim here," Lamandre wrote in a statement. "My client did not feel her complaint was taken seriously because of the hostility she was met with by Mr. Papale. … My client wanted support through this overwhelming process."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.