Government Must Release Report About Indian Health Service Predator, Court Rules
Dr. Stanley Weber at the Andrew W. Bogue Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Nov. 1, 2017. (Kristina Barker for The Wall Street Journal)
The U.S. Indian Health Service must disclose a report about how it allowed a pediatrician to sexually prey on Native American boys for decades, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The IHS has successfully sought to keep the report it commissioned — and that its then-leader promised lawmakers would provide answers about the agency’s mishandling of sexual abuse — secret for more than a year and half.
The report was completed in January 2020. It documents the career of Stanley Patrick Weber, an IHS pediatrician who sexually assaulted children in his care at two agency hospitals where he worked from 1992 until 2016, despite a series of investigations, whistleblower allegations and suspicions by the agency’s own managers.
Weber was convicted of the abuse in 2018 and in 2020, and sentenced to more than five lifetime prison terms. As the scandal unfolded, IHS officials told lawmakers it would provide a full accounting of how and why Weber wasn’t stopped earlier.
But the government said the report that stemmed from its investigation amounted to a confidential assessment of the quality of medical care that could be kept secret under a 2010 law. The agency refused to release it publicly for 20 months, despite pressure from journalists and U.S. senators.
A three-judge panel at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that logic in its unanimous ruling, saying the report “does not evaluate the medical care IHS provides.”
Rather, the appellate judges, who reviewed a copy of the report, said it “focuses on administrative errors: errors in management, reporting, investigation, and communication, including by specific administrators.” The decision affirmed a lower-court ruling in a lawsuit by Dow Jones & Co., parent of The Wall Street Journal, and the The New York Times that sought to compel the government to disclose the report.
Weber “was allowed to perpetrate here for over 20 years, and everybody knew and we were just powerless,” Pauletta Red Willow, a social-services worker on the reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., where Weber was long stationed, said Thursday. “I can’t wait for the report to come out so we can find these flaws in IHS where we are failing our kids,” she said.
The agency, which provides medical care to more than 2.5 million Native Americans through a network of hospitals and clinics, said in a statement Thursday that it is committed to ensuring a culture of quality, leadership and accountability. “We respect today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals,” the statement said.
Lawyers for Weber, now incarcerated in a federal prison in Pekin, Ill., didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.
In 2019, the Journal and the PBS series FRONTLINE produced a joint investigation examining the IHS’s failures to stop Weber. Two months later, the IHS commissioned the investigative report, hiring a contractor called Integritas Creative Solutions, LLC. The IHS began the process of soliciting contractors for the assignment in October 2018, days after receiving detailed questions about its handling of Weber from the Journal.
Carl Caulk, Integritas’s leader, declined to comment Thursday.
Reporters for the Journal and the Times made Freedom of Information Act requests for the report in early 2020, and both news organizations sued the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the agency’s parent, when it failed to produce the document in April of that year.
In denying the IHS’s claim that the report amounts to a secret quality-assurance review, the appellate court said efforts by the agency to describe the report as exactly that in its contracting documents didn’t make it so.
“If it did, IHS could immunize any document from disclosure,” the judges ruled.
The ruling affirmed U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein’s order in January, which found “there is literally nothing in the Report that could be characterized as an assessment of the quality of the medical care provided to IHS patients.”
Citing the appellate decision, Judge Gorenstein on Thursday ordered the IHS to turn the report over to Dow Jones and the Times by Tuesday, unless government lawyers elect to pursue further appeals.
The IHS has struggled with preventing sexual abuse at its facilities beyond the Weber case. Another agency doctor, Pedro Ibarra-Perocier, pleaded guilty last month to sexually abusing five adult patients at another IHS facility in Wagner, S.D., court records show. His lawyer declined to comment.
The agency said it was continuing to give priority to preventing any further abuse at its facilities. The IHS said it had rolled out new policies, including a new reporting hotline and more training of employees, to address the issue.
“IHS is committed to making significant investments to prevent sexual abuse and to reinforce that such crimes will not be tolerated,” the agency said. “We will continue to institute the reforms necessary to create the high-quality care environment that our patients and employees should expect in our clinics and hospitals.”
Nonetheless, the report could bolster pending civil court claims by some of Weber’s victims.
“The government was trying to stretch and twist the law to continue to keep information about what happened with Weber a secret, and the court rejected that,” said Peter Janci, a lawyer who represents three of Weber’s victims who are suing the U.S. government over IHS’s alleged violations of their rights under U.S. treaties with Native American tribes.
“It’s time for them to come clean and try to make things right,” Mr. Janci said.
The government has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the statute of limitations on bringing the case has expired and that the treaty in question didn’t. Recently both sides have agreed to enter into preliminary settlement negotiations, court documents show.