A few blocks north of the University of Texas campus, Dr. Philip Leonard practices medicine in the same office where he allegedly touched 17 female patients in highly inappropriate ways.
“It depended on where he was, but the way I like to put it (is) he led with his penis,” one of his accusers told the Texas Medical Board, describing how the neurologist pressed against her while seeing her for a head injury.
“I felt totally violated,” said another, detailing for the board how, when she was pregnant, the doctor pushed against her buttocks as he administered an injection.
When the board reviewed the women’s statements 13 years ago, it judged them “credible and reasonably consistent” and suspended Leonard’s license.
Yet today it’s all barely a memory in the Texas capital, where the 65-year-old practices without any restrictions on the patients he can see or the conditions under which he can see them.
Leonard’s case is a powerful example of the difficulty in prosecuting a well-connected doctor and how that can force a medical board into compromise.
Although several women went to the police with their complaints, the Travis County attorney’s office took only one of the women’s cases to trial. When it ended in an acquittal, the medical board allowed Leonard to practice as long as he treated only male patients for 10 years. In 2014, he became eligible to treat women again.
“What (Leonard) did was clearly an abuse of his power over these women,” said Dr. Lee Anderson, a Fort Worth ophthalmologist who served as the board’s president at the time. “But the ugly reality is, what can we actually achieve? I’m certain the acquittal had something to do with softening the suspension.”
Leonard declined to be interviewed for this story. He has had no public orders from the board since his 10-year ban on treating women ended.
More women come forward
The case against Leonard, a former president of the Texas Neurological Society, started when Cathryn Blue, a resident of nearby Lockhart, contacted Austin police hours after leaving his office in August 2001 and alleged that the doctor had rubbed his erect penis against her knees and touched her inappropriately.
Blue, now 57, agreed to allow The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to identify her in this story.
“I just broke down and started crying so bad and thought, `How could this happen to me? I’m smarter than this,’” she wrote days after the office visit in a 15-page narrative. “I felt stupid, ashamed and so humiliated.”
After Leonard was arrested, news coverage prompted other women to contact police and the medical board.
At a public hearing to decide whether to suspend Leonard’s license, the board heard testimony from eight of his accusers. Most described their experiences in graphic detail. All were cross-examined by Leonard’s attorney, Tim Weitz, who frequently asked questions about their medical and criminal histories.
When Leonard testified, he denied doing anything improper. Pressed on why so many women with no connections to each other would be saying similar things about him, he replied: “I can’t tell you what is going through these people’s minds.”
Leonard admitted that he paid a female patient $5,000 several years earlier to prevent her from suing him for sexual harassment, but he said the payment was not an admission of wrongdoing.
“I thought it would be much less (expensive) than going to any kind of hearings or anything like that,” he testified.
In its order suspending Leonard’s license, the board said allowing the doctor to continue practicing “would constitute a continuing threat to the public welfare.”
The administrative case began to unravel after the criminal case based on Blue’s allegations went to trial.
‘I’ll never understand it’
Without forensic evidence, the case hung largely on Blue’s say-so. The defense pointed out that she had misstated her medical history and portrayed her as someone trying to obtain the painkiller Demerol and game the workers’ compensation system. The judge would not allow the prosecution to mention the other women’s allegations.
“They painted me as a really bad person and a liar,” Blue said recently. “I mean, this jury is only hearing about me, and I’m thinking about all these other women I’m supposed to represent because their voices were not there.”
Leonard did not testify, but his attorney suggested in his closing argument that what Blue felt was the doctor’s cell phone.
“He carries that cell phone in his pocket, so it’s easy to see how she might have misperceived what went on there,” the attorney, Chris Gunter, said.
Summing up his case, prosecutor Gilbert Barrera called Leonard “the worst that the medical community has to offer. The very worst. The most despicable.”
That wasn’t enough to sway the jury, which took less than two hours to come back with its verdict of acquittal.
According to a filing by Leonard in a civil case, at least one of the other criminal complaints against him was later resolved with a plea agreement that allowed for his record to be expunged after he successfully completed six months’ deferred adjudication.
Barrera initially agreed to an interview for this story but later cancelled. Now an accounting professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, he said he was advised by the county attorney’s office that he couldn’t discuss Leonard’s case because of the expungement.
Another accuser who testified in front of the medical board told the AJC that police also investigated her claim that Leonard groped her after giving her an injection that made her groggy. But she said she declined requests from the county attorney’s office to go forward because of the way she was cross-examined by Weitz at the hearing.
“After the attorney made me feel like some kind of drug addict, I let it go,” said the woman, who asked that her identity not be revealed so she can “put this behind me and move on.”
She said she still finds it hard to believe that Leonard was allowed to continue practicing. “Why they didn’t just take his license is beyond me,” she said. “I don’t understand it. I’ll never understand it.”
A ‘socially awkward older man’
In the order allowing Leonard to return to practice, negotiated nine months after his acquittal, the board required the doctor to appear before the panel every six months for the first five years to discuss his compliance. In terminating the order in 2014, the board said the doctor had completed all requirements.
While under suspension, Leonard created a website, thankyoudrleonard.com, where supportive messages from friends, patients and colleagues were posted. Some were highly critical of the medical board, but Anderson, who served as the board’s president from 2000 to 2005, said that had no bearing on the decision to allow Leonard to practice again.
Anderson said Leonard benefited greatly from having Weitz, the board’s former general counsel, as his attorney. He also said the order reflected how the board, facing a tight budget at the time, wanted to avoid costly appeals.
“We were forced into many situations where we just didn’t have the money to hire expert witnesses, to do all the kinds of things to pursue a case further than our board room,” the former board president said.
Weitz, interviewed recently, called Leonard “a socially awkward older man” but not someone whose conduct should be construed as sexual.
“The number (of accusers) shows that this was a physician who was doing something that makes people uncomfortable,” the attorney said. “It doesn’t mean that he was sexually molesting them.”
About this story
Our partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent thousands of hours reviewing more than 100,000 public records from all 50 states and conducted dozens of interviews. They found that sexual abuse of patients by doctors is shrouded by a system that is designed, in large part, to protect doctors. This investigation will be available in Sunday’s paper, but a special preview of the project for American-Statesman subscribers is available www.AJC.com/doctors.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigation analyzed records of 2,400 doctors who were sanctioned since 1999 after being accused of sexual misconduct involving patients, and found that more than half of them still have active medical licenses today.
The analysis included records from 158 doctors in Texas who had been disciplined by the Texas Medical Board, including Dr. Philip Leonard, of Austin.
Extensive records on physician discipline are available to the public on the medical board’s website. To look up your doctor’s disciplinary history, visit www.tmb.state.tx.us