Is your doctor a perv? In NJ, sex crimes don’t keep them from treating patients
By David Matthau and Sergio Bichao
Leonard Joachim was accused of sexually abusing two women in his office.
He pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual contact involving one victim. Prosecutors dropped the charges involving the second victim. A judge spared him from prison.
If he were a police officer or a teacher, he might have never worked in those professions again in this state.
But Joachim was a doctor. And in New Jersey, being found guilty of sexual crimes isn’t always enough to keep medical professionals from seeing patients again.
Joachim’s first conviction was in 1995. The State Board of Medical Examiners allowed Joachim to continue to treat people as long as he employed a chaperone to monitor his interaction with patients.
He didn't follow that rule, according to the board. In 2003 a female patient accused him of kissing her and placing her hand on his erect penis. He wasn’t prosecuted, and the board gave him another chance, putting him on a six-month medical license probation (shorter than the two years the board imposed in 1995).
In 2011, Joachim was accused of raping a drug-addicted patient seeking a prescription. For the second time in his career, he agreed to plead guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, once again sparing him from prison. Two years later in a hearing before the board, he admitted to having “unconsented” oral sex and intercourse with the patient.
This time, the board took away his license. But it's not necessarily the end of Joachim’s career in New Jersey.
Even though the board’s 2013 decision called his actions “heinous” and said it “cannot envision circumstances under which this licensee, having been found to have engaged in serious sexual misconduct three times over 20 years, would ever be able to practice again,” the revocation is not permanent. An appellate court decision in April also notes that Joachim is not barred from seeking reinstatement of his license in the future.
Joachim is not alone.
Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino says the board has not reinstated any revoked licenses since it instituted reforms in 2015.
But a New Jersey 101.5 review of hundreds of pages of consent orders and board decisions found five cases in the last two years in which doctors' licenses were revoked after they admitted to sexual misconduct or were convicted of sex crimes but will still be allowed to reapply for their licenses in three to 10 years.
In 2015, the board also stopped entering arrangements that allow bad doctors to keep working as long as they no longer treat women or children.
Yet dozens of doctors who had been accused or convicted of sex crimes before the reforms have been allowed to keep treating patients who may not be aware of their doctors' criminal backgrounds.
Our investigation also found:
— At least 17 doctors accused or convicted of sex crimes continue to practice in New Jersey with the requirement that they have chaperones monitor their interactions with patients or staff, according to the state Attorney General's Office. We name these doctors in this report.
— Six of these doctors entered into "private letter agreements" with the board, meaning that their names are secret. The state stopped entering into such secret agreements in 2013, but the board continues to protect the identities of doctors in existing orders.
— Judging by dozens of consent orders we reviewed dating back to 2015, license revocations are rarely permanent. Even admitted sex offenders are usually given the opportunity to reapply to the board to have their licenses reinstated. In the last two years, the state has permanently revoked the licenses of just two doctors as a result of sexually related allegations — Daniel J. O’Hearn, who was convicted of child porn possession in New York, and Jadan Abbassi, who agreed to the permanent revocation even though he denied the accusation that he had inappropriate sexual behavior with a patient.
— In the last decade, the state has reinstated the licenses of at least three doctors whose licenses were revoked as a result of accusations or convictions for sex crimes. One of the doctors was accused of sexual misconduct by 12 patients. One doctor's license was revoked a second time after an undercover agent reported he'd violated a chaperone order. In this report, we also name these doctors and detail the accusations against them.
— Doctors who've lost their licenses don't always have trouble finding work in New Jersey. Even after Joachim's third disciplinary action and second conviction, Joachim had a job offer from Sall Myers Medical Associates, which has offices in Paterson, Passaic, New Brunswick, Irvington, Union City, Rochelle Park, Parsippany and Union in Union County.
The group's medical director, Steven H. Dane, testified to the board that Joachim was knowledgeable, compassionate and well-liked by patients and that he was prepared to hire him but have him treat only male patients, according to an April appellate court decision regarding his license revocation.
Dane did not return a detailed request for comment left with someone who answered the phone at his Paterson office. Joachim could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Joseph M. Gorrell, of the firm Brach Eichler, declined to comment for this article.
In response to our findings, a spokesman for Porrino submitted a statement from State Board of Medical Examiners President George Scott, who noted that Division of Consumer Affairs Director Steven Lee addressed the board in July 2015 and “outlined reforms to the way cases involve doctors accused of sexual misconducts are handled.”
“We share and reaffirm our commitment to ensure the board does everything to protect the public and to hold those who engage in sexual misconduct accountable for their actions,” Scott said.
Porrino said the days “when doctors were simply slapped on the wrist and were allowed to continue to practice medicine with chaperones and other restrictions … are over.”
“In 2015, New Jersey changed the way it doles out punishments for doctors involved in any type of sexual misconduct,” Porrino told New Jersey 101.5.
Lee also called on prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office "to seek the most aggressive penalty that is appropriate based on the evidence available.”
Several doctors, however, have been reinstated because of existing consent orders that went into effect before the 2015 changes.
After an accusation is made, the state seeks immediate suspension. If a doctor is found guilty, the state pushes for revocation or long-term suspension. Officials say these cases face the usual challenges associated with prosecuting sexual crimes, including availability of evidence and whether victims are willing to testify.
The ultimate decisions about the punishments for doctors and whether their licenses are reinstated are up to the board, which comprises 21 members appointed by the governor. Almost all are health care professionals. The board is overseen by the Division of Consumer Affairs in the Office of the Attorney General.
Doctors and the state can appeal board decisions to a Superior Court, but judges are bound by precedent to defer to the board’s expertise and will rarely reverse their decisions.
Slipping through the cracks
Years before the state began urging the Board of Medical Examiners to crack down, the Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, found that New Jersey was one of the 10 worst states for disciplining doctors, with 2.4 serious licensing actions for every 1,000 doctors. The national average was 3 for every 1,000.
Azza AbuDagga, the group's health services researcher and the lead author of that study, says just 1 in 10 patients will report sexual misconduct by doctors because they're shocked and doubt anyone will believe their word against that of medical professionals.
The Division of Consumer Affairs website posts disciplinary actions against doctors dating back to the 1980s for infractions including fraud, improperly prescribing medication, malpractice, and doctors' personal struggles with alcoholism and addiction. Only a portion of the actions involve sexual misconduct.
"The duty of the medical board is to protect patients. But unfortunately, by not taking the proper actions against those physicians, they're actually serving as a tool (to) serve their peers," AbuDagga said.
"I don't see the medical community is interested in solving that problem, from what we're seeing so far."
Not safe for women and girls
The 2015 reforms followed a series of stories in The Record newspaper of Bergen County about dermatologist Gangaram Ragi, who was accused by a dozen women patients of groping and molesting them – charges he has denied.
In 2005, after he had been indicted on charges of fondling two women, he was accepted into the court’s pre-trial intervention program, which allows first-time offenders accused of minor crimes to avoid criminal records if they keep out of trouble. Ten more women later came forward and, in a decision that was questioned by some victims and attorneys, prosecutors in Bergen County again allowed Ragi to have the charges dropped through PTI in 2008.
The Board of Medical Examiners settled its disciplinary dispute with Ragi in 2011 by restricting him from ever seeing female patients.
Ragi is one of two doctors in the state with such a restriction. The other is Ravinder Sharma, who was charged in 2013 with molesting a teenage intern in his New Brunswick office. After his arrest, the board in 2013 ordered that Sharma employ a chaperone to observe his interactions with all patients and staff, and ordered him not to treat any patients under 21 or employ anyone under the age of 21.
In 2014, Sharma was accepted into the court’s PTI program and the charges were dropped after his license was suspended for six months. He paid a $5,000 fine and was ordered not to have any unsupervised contact with girls under the age of 16.
In January, the board made Sharma’s chaperone and over-21 age restrictions permanent.
State regulations require all physicians to let patients know that they have a right to request chaperones during examinations of breasts, genital and rectal areas.
But 17 doctors in New Jersey are required to have chaperones at all times.
These chaperones are supposed to be licensed medical professionals and are required to submit periodic reports to the board. Doctors who employ chaperones are required to make that fact known by posting the requirement in their offices.
In response to an inquiry by New Jersey 101.5, the state released the names of 11 doctors who are required to have chaperones, including Ragi and Sharma. The names of the others are kept secret.
According to the consent orders, which the Division of Consumer Affairs posts on its website, all 11 doctors were accused of sexual misconduct.
Listed below are the names of the doctors released by the state. When available, we included links to the consent orders detailing the accusations and restrictions against them.
Reiter's license was revoked in 2001 for a period of at least five years after he was convicted of second-degree criminal sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal sexual contact of four patients.
In 2008, he was granted a limited license so that he could participate in a training program. In 2011, the board granted Reiter more leeway to practice medicine, requiring he use a chaperone with female patients.
See: Interim Order of Reinstatement of Licensure with Restrictions (2008); Second Interim Order of Reinstatement of Licensure with Restrictions (2010); Third Order of Reinstatement of Licensure with Restrictions (2011)
The Bergen County physician was accused in 2009 of inappropriately touching a patient's breast and looking at her underwear, and was accused by another woman of inappropriately touching her genitals. Goldfarb denied the allegations but entered into a private letter agreement in 2011 that ordered he use a chaperone to treat women.
A year later, Goldfarb was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual assault against a patient. In 2013, he was admitted into PTI, which resulted in a judge dismissing the charges after three years. A 2015 consent order with the board requires that he use a chaperone to treat female patients.
See: Consent Order
Zawid entered into a private letter agreement with the board in 1994 that required him to have a chaperone to conduct breast examinations. But the board in 2006 found that he had not followed the agreement and that he had sexually harassed a patient, which he denied. In 2010, without admitting guilt, Zawid agreed to two years of probation, to use a chaperone to treat female patients, and to no longer perform breast or pelvic examinations.
See: Consent Order (2010)
Keith E. Fraser
Fraser admitted that in 2008 he groped the breast of a patient — a stroke victim who used a wheelchair. The board in 2009 suspended his license for three years, although two years were served as probation. In 2011, the board imposed a permanent condition that he employ a chaperone to treat female patients.
Kye S. Chun
Chun was accused in 2009 of sexual harassment and misconduct against two female patients, although the board's record does not say whether he faced criminal charges. In 2009, the board suspended Chun's license for five years. In 2014, he apologized to the board for "having exercised poor judgement and having engaged in inexcusable behavior and expressed sincere remorse over his conduct," and said he would be offered employment by Belleville internist Mustafa M. Sidali. The board in 2014 reinstated Chun's license on condition he use a chaperone to treat female patients and that he undergo weekly therapy.
In 2004, Mehta was indicted in Hudson County on fourth-degree criminal sexual contact of two female patients. One woman said he squeezed her breast for a long time, touched her buttocks, inserted his fingers into her labia and vagina and stuck his tongue into her mouth. Another patient said he fondled her buttocks, anus and labia, commented on the cleanliness of her vagina, hugged her three times during the visit and kissed her mouth.
In 2004, Mehta was accepted into the court's PTI program. Since 2005 he has been required to have a chaperone monitor his interaction with female patients and he has not been allowed to offer obstetrics and gynecology services from his practice.
See: Order of Temporary Suspension of Licensure (2004); Order Continuing Temporary Suspension of Licensure (2004); Amended Consent Order (2008)
Nikhil S. Parikh
Parikh was indicted on a fourth-degree charge of criminal sexual contact after a patient in 2002 said he hugged her, pressed his pelvis against her, rubbed his face in her hair and tried to kiss her.
At trial, Parikh testified on his own behalf and admitted that he had asked the patient for a hug and that he hugged her for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. He said he was excited and lost control of himself and hugged her in a sexual manner, but released the patient when he realized she was upset.
An Atlantic County jury found Parikh not guilty, but the board used Parikh's testimony to find that he violated medical profession regulations against sexual contact and harassment. As a result, the board placed Parikh on probation for a year and required he use a chaperone to treat female patients.
Hussain was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual contact after he was accused of masturbating while examining a female patient in his Trenton office in 2010. In 2011 he was accepted into the court's PTI program and the charges were eventually dropped. In 2012, the board revoked his license but allowed him to reapply in 2014.
In 2015, after he had applied for reinstatement before the reforms, the board reinstated his license but required him to use a chaperone to treat all patients for five years and to continuing undergoing psychotherapy.
See: Interim Consent Order (2011); Consent Order of Surrender of License Deemed a Revocation (2012); Order Granting Licensure (2015)
Back in business
In the past 10 years, three doctors, including Ragi, have seen their once-revoked licenses restored, a Division of Consumer Affairs spokesman said.
One of them was Don Henry Wijaya, a psychiatrist who was accused by one of his patients of taking advantage of her and starting a sexual relationship. The board revoked his license in 2002 but restored it in 2012 with conditions. Wijaya denied engaging in a sexual relationship with his patient but "accepted full responsibility for engaging in boundary violations."
Michael LaFon, meanwhile, got a second chance and blew it.
He was arrested in 2003 and charged with three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact and lewdness in connection to three patients. Afterward, several more patients accused him of inappropriate sexual comments, touching and having sex with patients or their spouses, although those accusations did not result in more criminal charges.
The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office agreed to allow LaFon to cop a plea deal and get a four-year probation sentence in exchange for giving up his license in 2004.
But the board in 2008 and again in 2014 allowed LaFon to continue his practice after he pursued treatment with Sex and Love Anonymous. One of the conditions was that he only see male patients and keep a chaperone.
In 2015, however, the state Attorney General's Office asked the board to revoke his license again after an undercover agent saw LaFon three times without a chaperone. Drug Enforcement Agency officials also found that LaFon had been filling out patient records with their weight, blood pressure and pain scales before their appointments. In April 2015, the board revoked his license for the second time in his career.
He has a shot at a third chance, though, in 2020.
Revoked ... for now
The state says it has cracked down on sexual misconduct cases since 2015, but recent board decisions show that doctors accused of violating the trust of their patients are still being given opportunities to return to the profession after losing their license.
Among them is Bergenfield doctor Raja K. Jagtiani, who was arrested three times in 2015. The first was in March, when he was charged with sexual contact with a patient. He was arrested again in August, when he was accused of nine counts of criminal sexual contact with three victims. He was arrested yet again in September on five more counts involving three new victims. The most serious charge he faced was second-degree sexual assault.
Last October, Jagtiani pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact involving eight victims and was sentenced to five years of probation.
In October, the board found that he had engaged in "sexual misconduct and acts consisting of crimes of moral turpitude," and revoked his license.
But it's not forever.
In 10 years, Jagtiani will be allowed to reapply for his license. The board even provided him with a roadmap to reinstatement, with instructions in the final consent order that he complete evaluations and course work in the ninth year of the revocation before seeking to reapply.
Then there is Farooq Rehman, who was arrested twice in 2015 on charges of molesting patients at Neurology Consultants of Central Jersey in Old Bridge.
The board suspended his license in November 2015 after he was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual contact of a patient he was examining. A week after his suspension, he was arrested again on two counts of criminal sexual contact involving another patient. Last year, he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact involving one of the patients and harassment involving the other. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
The board, which had found that Rehman "posed a clear and imminent danger to the public" and that his "insidious" behavior "exceeded all boundaries," decided to revoke his license in January. But he's allowed to apply again in five years.
Theodore Jasper, a psychiatrist in Clifton, admitted having inappropriate relationships with mentally ill patients. His license was revoked in May but he can reapply after four years.
Alex Sarkodie was accused by the state Attorney General's Office of "multiple acts of sexual misconduct" against patients at his Paterson practice, which he denies. In April, Sarkodie agreed to settle with the board without admitting guilt. His license was revoked, but he can reapply after three years.
Henry Odunlami was reprimanded in May 2016, but didn't lose his license, after admitting that he hugged and kissed a patient. He was ordered to take an ethics course and undergo therapy.
Gregory M. Braccia, a doctor in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, was reprimanded and fined in December, but didn't lose his license, after he was found guilty in Pennsylvania of two instances of indecent exposure and lewdness and was sentenced to a year of probation and community service. Pennsylvania suspended his license for a year.
Alfred B. Parchment was charged last September with "offensive touching" of a patient's breast. His license has been suspended pending the outcome of the charge.
Ronald Fisher's license was suspended in New Mexico as a result of charges of sexual misconduct with patients. New Jersey also suspended his license, but if he decides to come back to New Jersey, he has the right to appear before the board to seek reinstatement.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5.
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