The same week that Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse of young gymnasts made national headlines — with one victim after another coming forward to publicly describe his sexual abuse — a former Georgia doctor sat in a courtroom hundreds of miles away.
Like Nassar, Dr. Paul Harnetty was facing charges involving the way he touched patients during medical exams.
The ob-gyn was practicing in remote Casper, Wyoming, when a number of patients reported him to police. After hearing the accounts of six women, who described what Harnetty did when they were naked and vulnerable, the jury found the doctor guilty of sexually assaulting two of his patients. He was acquitted on six charges.
What the jury didn’t hear, however, was the long trail of allegations that surrounded Harnetty before he even arrived in Wyoming. It turns out that the ob-gyn, like the gymnastics doctor, escaped public discipline for years.
The Georgia Composite Medical Board heard plenty about Harnetty when it investigated him while he practiced in Georgia, according to records obtained by Wyoming investigators. More than a dozen nurses who had worked with the doctor for years told a board investigator the doctor routinely inserted his finger into the anuses of pregnant women while they were delivering babies — something that they did not see other doctors do. He also marked the charts of attractive patients with smiley faces and tried to make sure he was in line to deliver their babies.
That was just part of what came out.
But Georgia’s medical board never publicly disciplined Harnetty and kept its investigation strictly confidential. A Georgia hospital also refused to say why Harnetty gave up his hospital privileges in 2010.
Harnetty left Georgia with a clear public record, quickly gaining a license to practice in Wyoming in April 2012.
Once there, his behavior led to another series of complaints, and, by 2015, a criminal investigation. It also prompted a Georgia woman to report that in 2011, the doctor had sexually assaulted her.
“There had been red flags on this guy forever,” said Michael Blonigen, the district attorney in Wyoming whose office prosecuted Harnetty in last month’s jury trial. “I think it’s a fair question — how does it get this far without somebody saying, ‘Wait a minute. What’s with this guy?’”
The answer seems to be the broken system that shields and forgives sexually abusive doctors in all 50 states, as documented in 2016 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Doctors & Sex Abuse investigation.
Code of silence
If Wyoming investigators hadn’t taken a hard look at Harnetty’s past and raised the curtain on the allegations in Georgia, the public may never have known about the questions that dogged him over the years.
The Georgia Composite Medical Board, which licenses and disciplines doctors, won’t comment on what it knew about the doctor while he practiced in Warner Robins. If it disciplined him secretly — as it has with other doctors accused of sexual abuse and other misconduct — it won’t say. Nor will it say if it decided to take no action at all. Georgia law bars the board from discussing cases and allows it to discipline doctors in private, even when the allegations are serious and the board finds a complaint has merit.
On its website, Harnetty’s license is now simply listed as “lapsed.”
Medical board records show that the Georgia board licensed Harnetty in 2003, shortly after he completed medical residencies. He had graduate medical training first in Baltimore, then LasVegas, then Chicago, his board profile shows.
The board website doesn’t reveal why Harnetty trained in three locations. But Wyoming court documents say he had to do his residency training in more than one location “because of improprieties relating to members of the opposite sex.”
Within a few years, hospital nurses who worked with him started filing internal complaints alleging sexual harassment. The hospital required the doctor to apologize to nurses, records show.
In 2010, the Georgia medical board got a complaint from a nurse and opened a case. As its investigation proceeded, a dozen nurses reported they were troubled by what they saw Harnetty do to women during labor and delivery. Nurses also told a board investigator about Harnetty’s sexual harassment, inappropriate comments and touching.
In July 2010, Harnetty voluntarily gave up his privileges to practice at Houston Medical Center.
Exactly why he left isn’t clear, because the hospital said that information is confidential.
Casper police tried to find out in 2015, as they began their criminal investigation. But the hospital refused to reveal the facts. All peer review matters, the hospital said in a letter to Casper police, are confidential under Georgia law.
The AJC obtained a copy of the letter from the hospital through the Georgia Open Records Act.
The hospital also objected when the Wyoming prosecutor subpoenaed three hospital employees to testify at Harnetty’s trial. The hospital’s lawyer said the employees were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Wyoming court, according to letters obtained by the AJC.
After Harnetty left the hospital, the medical board heard more complaints.
Harnetty continued seeing pregnant women in a Georgia office and didn’t warn them he couldn’t deliver their babies. Some didn’t find out until they showed up at the hospital in labor, said Kelly Burke, a former district attorney in Houston County who represented patients who said Harnetty abandoned them.
Burke said Harnetty would actually tell patients during office visits that he would meet them at the hospital, knowing full well he wouldn’t.
A medical board investigator carefully looked into the allegations, Burke said, including conducting interviews with patients. “The board ultimately did nothing with it,” he said.
The board appeared to reason that all the patients had been able to deliver their babies with the help of other doctors, Burke said. Besides, by the time the board investigated that complaint, Harnetty had left Georgia, which also seemed to make the board less interested in pursuing a case, Burke said
“They were like, ‘Oh well, he’s gone,’” Burke said. “I thought that was pretty poor on the medical board’s part.”
Harnetty continued to work in Georgia without hospital privileges in 2011. But he was clearly eager for a fresh start, applying for licenses in other states.
Wyoming licensed him in April 2012. When it checked his history, if anything popped up on Harnetty, it wasn’t enough to stand in his way. He started practicing in Casper.
By 2015, Casper police started looking into sexual abuse allegations, and the Wyoming medical board started to investigate other complaints, according to documents obtained by the AJC. They included the doctor’s arrest and jailing in 2015 after drinking alcohol then banging a baseball bat on a neighbor’s door. On the night of the incident, the doctor was actually on call with the hospital to provide any needed emergency care and telephone consults.
After that incident, he underwent an evaluation and was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse. The hospital granted his request for a medical leave.
While he was on leave, he kept seeing patients at his practice. He didn’t tell them he could not deliver babies, the board order says.
In February 2016, the Wyoming medical board filed a disciplinary complaint. That fall, the doctor voluntarily relinquished his license.
In January 2017, he was arrested and charged with 12 counts of sexual assault and one drug count.
Georgia patient steps forward
When news reports from Wyoming about Paul Harnetty’s arrest made their way to middle Georgia, one woman felt a rush of emotions. Harnetty had been her doctor, but she says he had also been her abuser.
“When other people came forward, I was so happy because I thought maybe they would believe me,” the woman told the AJC, which does not name victims of sexual assault unless they agree to be publicly identified.
The woman said when she was in her 20s, the doctor offered to do a procedure at no charge and told her to come to the office on a Saturday morning.
He gave her a prescription to take before coming in, and she described being woozy on the medications by the time she arrived. Then, she told the AJC, the doctor touched her inappropriately, used a massager on her and used his hands in an assault, while making vulgar comments. She said he then did the medical procedure, which she said was botched and had to later be corrected.
“He said, ‘Remember, nobody needs to know about today,’” the woman said.
Traumatized and confused, she was convinced no one would take her word over the doctor’s. He was an attractive, prestigious man with a medical degree. There were no witnesses. She did tell one of Harnetty’s nurses what had happened, but she said the nurse discouraged her from making a report.
In November, the woman called Casper police to tell them what had happened. “We found her credible,” said Blonigen, the district attorney.
The prosecution brought her allegations forward in court filings. But they were not used at trial, where evidence had to be focused on what happened to Wyoming patients.
However, Casper authorities told a Houston County, Georgia prosecutor about the allegations, wondering if a criminal case could be pursued here. Erikka Williams, chief assistant in the Houston DA’s office, said that based on the little information she had, too much time had passed for the case to be prosecuted.
The trauma of the assault continues to haunt the woman, who is now in her 30s, affecting everything from her personal relationships to her ability to see a doctor, she said. “He screwed up my entire life,” she said.
‘It’s a national problem’
In spite of Harnetty’s history in Georgia, the Wyoming prosecutor wasn’t surprised that the doctor was never publicly disciplined.
“It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Blonigen said. “I think it’s a national problem, with doctors and some of the other professions as well.”
He said he’s seen it repeatedly, beginning when he handled a doctor sex abuse case more than three decades ago, until today. “There is a lot of resistance in professional boards to believing their members are violating the law and particularly committing any sort of sexual misconduct,” he said.
Even when boards do find compelling evidence, he said, it’s not unusual for boards to drop their probes when doctors to agree to give up their licenses or leave the state. The AJC investigation found that medical boards often fail to notify police that a doctor may have committed a sex crime.
Blonigen said he also knew, from experience, that getting a doctor convicted can be tough. While the outrage nationally over sexual abuse is high at the moment, the doctor-patient relationship often requires someone to disrobe and submit to being touched. That makes it easy for a predator to abuse and often difficult for a victim to prove her case.
At the trial, while the prosecution argued the doctor misused his position of power for sexual gratificaiton, an expert testifying on Harnetty’s behalf said the touching at issue in the medical exams could be accidental or that patients misunderstood.
One of Harnetty’s attorneys, Don Fuller, said the doctor should have been charged under a statute that applies to doctors and allows more leeway if an exam was done for a reasonable medical purpose.
“We will go forward with the appeal,” Fuller said.
In Georgia, Harnetty’s case raises the tough question of whether the system’s silence or inaction permitted a dangerous doctor to find new victims.
Helen Robinson, with the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, has urged the medical board to do more to protect consumers from doctors who sexually abuse patients. “These people need to see consequences,” Robinson said. “It’s the only way to stop them from continuing to perpetrate over time.”
Perhaps the public furor over the Nassar case, combined with a national focus on sexual abuse by powerful men, will change the dynamics that have permitted abusive doctors to keep seeing patients, said Arthur Caplan, who founded the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
“There is some chance that pressure will build on medicine, as it did on the priesthood, to be more transparent and to be less oriented toward protecting the doctor,” he said. “There may be less willingness to give a second chance.”
» Read the AJC's award-winning investigation, Doctors & Sex Abuse: AJC 50-state investigation