Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Chiropractor with Drunk Driving Convictions keeps License to Practice

California DUI attorney news

California's board that polices chiropractors knew that one of its licensees had a drinking problem that had led to three convictions for drinking and driving. But it took no action – until it learned he had been accused of something much more serious.

Jason Phillip Goettsch of Antioch now stands accused of drugging two women in a bar in February and sexually assaulting one of them after taking them to his chiropractic office. He turned himself in Thursday.

Well before the alleged assault, the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners had heard that Goettsch's drinking was running afoul of the law. It got official notice in 2006, and again in 2007, that he had been convicted of drunken driving.

Drunken driving is grounds for disciplining chiropractors and other health care professionals, including taking away their licenses.

But the board took no action after getting notice of the 2006 offense, reasoning that it was Goettsch's first, executive director Brian Stiger said. Goettsch had been convicted in 1998 of alcohol- related reckless driving, but that was not technically a drunken driving conviction and occurred before he became a chiropractor.

After the 2007 conviction, the board normally would have moved to discipline Goettsch, Stiger said. But by that time, its budget had been cut in half by lawmakers unhappy with a series of legally questionable actions last year.

With a depleted staff, Stiger said, the board could only go after chiropractors accused of harming patients – and so put the Goettsch case on hold.

"I would say, based on what I have seen in the files, that the board acted reasonably," Stiger said.

The case is another example of spotty discipline at the chiropractic board, said Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law, part of the University of San Diego School of Law. The center monitors state licensing boards.

"This is a pretty egregious case," Fellmeth said. "They should have gone after this guy before this."

The Bee reported earlier this year that the board allowed a Los Angeles chiropractor to keep practicing for two years after it got notice that he had been accused of rape. It acted only after four more victims – three patients and one job applicant – reported that they had been sexually abused.

State Auditor Elaine Howle issued a report last month finding that the board had failed to aggressively pursue wayward practitioners and that delays could have allowed chiropractors accused of fraud or sexual abuse to continue to endanger the public.

Goettsch's most recent run-in with the law began when the chiropractor ran into a patient and her cousin at a bar in February, Antioch police Sgt. Diane Aguinaga said.

He is accused of drugging the two women with the "date rape" drug known as GHB and taking them to his chiropractic office, where police say he sexually assaulted one of them.

At some point, according to police, Goettsch was dragging the victim to his car after the assault when an Antioch police officer happened to see him and intervened. The woman was taken to the hospital, and Goettsch was jailed for an outstanding warrant related to one of the drunken driving cases, Aguinaga said.

The woman's blood was tested for the date rape drug, but before the results came in, Goettsch had been released from jail. Police believed he he had fled, but the chiropractor turned himself in on Thursday.

He pleaded not guilty to charges of oral copulation, digital penetration, administering a drug with the intent to commit a sexual act and possession of a controlled substance, said his attorney, Dirk Manoukian.

California law considers abuse of alcohol or drugs by health care licensees to be unprofessional conduct, subject to discipline up to revocation.

In a 2002 case, an appeals court in Los Angeles reaffirmed the validity of a state law that calls for medical doctors to be disciplined for drunken driving and other substance abuse convictions. The court found that such convictions reflect a lack of personal and professional judgment, jeopardize personal and public safety, show a lack of medical knowledge and undermine public confidence in medical professionals.

In nearly 30 cases since 2002, the chiropractic board has disciplined practitioners for drunken driving – sometimes in combination with other misconduct – including at least four cases in which the chiropractors lost their licenses.

Goettsch admitted his alcohol-involved reckless driving conviction when he applied for a chiropractic license in 1999. The board looked into the case, and issued the license anyway, Stiger said.

It investigated the 2006 conviction and closed the case "with merit," meaning that while the misconduct occurred, it didn't warrant discipline. The conviction was put in a file to be kept for five years.

When Goettsch got his second drunken driving conviction in September, the board was in the throes of a budget crisis. Legislators had slashed its funding in half after the board took several legally questionable actions, including firing its executive director without due notice and failing to adhere to the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act.

Lawmakers passed a bill that would have asked voters to approve a measure to strip the board of some of its historic autonomy, in addition to restoring the full budget. But when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, the board failed to get back the money the Legislature had withheld.

Stiger said the board now has pulled out all the stops to make sure that Goettsch no longer practices. The attorney general's office has filed a formal accusation and petitioned for an immediate suspension of his license.