State senators grilled Louisiana Physical Therapy Board officials for more than a hour on Wednesday over their handling of sexual assault allegations against licensed physical therapists.
The nine-month suspension currently being served by Philippe Veeters, a Baton Rouge physical therapist who’s facing multiple criminal counts of sexual battery for allegedly assaulting nine patients, all women, came under particularly intense scrutiny.
Sen. JP Morrell called the punishment, which Veeters agreed to as part of a consent order to resolve a sexual assault complaint against him, a “slap on the wrist” and outrageous given the criminal allegations now piling up against him.
The woman behind that complaint, and a second woman who said Veeters also sexually assaulted her under the guise of treatment roughly a year before, both testified before lawmakers on Wednesday, detailing a Physical Therapy Board complaint process they described as hostile and drawn-out.
Their testimony provoked outrage from several lawmakers, including Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, both New Orleans Democrats who blasted the Physical Therapy Board over its handling of such serious allegations.
Morrell and Peterson also sharply questioned the conduct of George Papale, an attorney who for years has investigated complaints for the board, which oversees licenses for the state’s physical therapists.
The hearing before the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee initially appeared to be a quiet, routine review of new appointees to the board and a bill to allow the board to create a database of therapists.
But pointed questions from Peterson, Morrell and other lawmakers turned it into a dramatic examination of the board’s basic competency to handle complaints and regulate the profession.
“Your job as a board is not to look out for physical therapists, it’s to look out for patients,” Morrell told Physical Therapy Board officials, his voice rising to a shout. “What really, really makes me angry is when a sexual assault victim has the courage to contact a board and tell them they have a problem, (and) they are not taken seriously.”
The board’s handling and investigation of complaints, Peterson said, has been “woefully insufficient when it comes to sexual assault victims.”
Charlotte Martin, the state Physical Therapy Board’s executive director, told The Advocate in an emailed statement Wednesday that the board “is addressing the issues that were raised today immediately in a special meeting tomorrow that will be held at the board office in Lafayette.”
The woman whose complaint led to Veeters’ nine-month suspension said she promptly contacted the board after Veeters allegedly assaulted her during an appointment in June 2018 and relayed every detail she could remember.
But she said Martin, the board’s executive director, later told her the board was only continuing its investigation of her complaint against the advice of Papale, the attorney who regularly handled complaints.
The Advocate, which generally does not identify victims of sexual assaults, is not using the names of either of the women.
She never ended up testifying at a disciplinary hearing; the board, without consulting her, agreed with Veeters to settle the complaint with an admission of misconduct and the nine-month suspension of his license.
“To this day, I would like to know why Mr. Papale did not want the board to investigate my complaint knowing that Mr. Veeters had a similar complaint and had been put on notice before,” she told lawmakers, referring to a similar complaint a patient lodged against Veeters several years before.
That complaint, the first against Veeters, led the board to issue a letter of concern after physical therapists determined the behavior that led to the complaint might’ve been part of a legitimate treatment, Martin said.
Papale was not present at the hearing. Reached by phone later Wednesday, Papale declined to comment or respond to specific allegations, saying he hadn’t seen or heard details from the hearing, but said it’s “certainly not the case” that he’d mishandled sexual assault complaints.
Courtney Newton, a Hammond attorney who serves as the board’s counsel, defended some of the board’s procedures by pointing to legal requirements that it provide due process to physical therapists hit with complaints.
Because the clients who’ve filed a complaint are potential witnesses at a disciplinary hearing, Newton contended, keeping them informed of every detail of an investigation might taint their testimony at a potential disciplinary hearing.
Newton also, at least partially, attributed the lengthy investigative process to the same concern for due process, noting that state courts could toss out disciplinary action if the board didn’t ground its move in enough evidence.
The other woman to testify said Veeters sexually assaulted her under the guise of treatment in June 2017. She described a similarly difficult, reluctant and ultimately hostile experience after lodging her still-pending complaint with the board in January 2019.
“I regret ever speaking to (the Physical Therapy Board) in the first place,” she said Wednesday.
The board’s response and investigation left her feeling “trivialized, diminished and re-victimized,” she told the state senators.
Among the requests from their investigators, she said, was for her mental-health records “to prove I wasn’t seeking attention because of the media interest in this case,” even though she had lodged her complaint before Veeters’ well-publicized arrest.
Papale, assigned to handle her complaint, wrote in an email he might quit looking into her complaint because of her decision to retain an attorney from a Louisiana sexual assault support group to help navigate the process. In the email, a copy of which was provided to the committee on Wednesday, Papale called her attorney “unnecessary and burdensome.”
“What does it take for the board to take action against one of their licensees?” the woman asked state senators, noting that the board hasn’t revoked Veeters’ license despite pending complaints from her and two others. “If nine sexual assault charges and multiple victims aren’t enough for immediate action, then what is?”
Morrell, visibly enraged, read a list of other physical therapists who settled complaints of sexually mistreating patients by agreeing to probation or having their licenses temporarily suspended.
Those settlements, Morrell argued, fell well short of the board’s duty to protect the public and provide meaningful oversight of the profession.
“In the entire history of your board, you’ve never revoked a single license for sexual assault allegations,” Morrell said, before adding that Papale handled each of the complaints he’d named and served as a common thread in their handling of sexual assault allegations.
“How many people came in contact with Mr. Papale and never filed a damn complaint?” Morrell shouted at board officials. “If this is what they went through, how many people are being assaulted and being dismissed by your employee and aren’t filing a damn complaint?”
in a testy series of exchanges with Morrell, Newton, the board’s attorney, defended their use of consent agreements to settle complaints of sexual abuse by physical therapists. Morrell at one point asked for permission to treat Newton as a hostile witness.
Unlike a disciplinary decision handed down by the board, a sanctioned physical therapist can’t challenge a voluntary consent order in court, Newton said. A series of consent orders could also “build a platform” for future complaints if a physical therapist proved to be a repeat offender.
Newton also suggested the board’s reluctance to press for a disciplinary hearing stems from the same issue that far too often appears to hamper criminal prosecutions: “These issues are very hard to prosecute when you have one witness and one physical therapist.”
Peterson, who chairs the committee, demanded that Papale — whom she said needs to be held accountable — make an appearance at a second hearing she scheduled for May 29.
Editors note: This article was updated to correct when the second victim filed her complaint with the Physical Therapy Board. She filed in January 2019, not February 2018. The Advocate regrets the error.