Judge Rules U.S. Indian Health Service Must Disclose Sex-Abuse Report
Dr. Stanley Weber at the Andrew W. Bogue Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Rapid City, South Dakota on Nov. 1, 2017. (Kristina Barker for The Wall Street Journal)
A federal judge ordered the U.S. Indian Health Service to disclose a report detailing the agency’s decades-long mishandling of a pediatrician who sexually abused Native American boys in his care, thwarting the agency’s efforts to keep the findings secret.
The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times sued the federal government in April seeking to compel the release under the Freedom of Information Act.
The IHS, a federal agency providing health services to 2.6 million Native Americans, claimed the report was exempt from disclosure because it constituted a privileged “medical quality assurance review.” The judge rejected that argument, noting that the report examined criminal and administrative activities, not medical ones.
The internal report was commissioned by the IHS after an investigation by the Journal and FRONTLINE revealed agency officials had dismissed warning signs about its pediatrician who sexually assaulted patients, Stanley Patrick Weber. The Journal-FRONTLINE investigation found the IHS had tried to silence whistleblowers and allowed Weber to continue treating children despite the suspicions of his peers and superiors. Weber was ultimately sentenced to five lifetime prison terms and is appealing one of his convictions.
In Wednesday’s order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein, of the Southern District of New York, 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.”
Rather, the report “is exclusively an assessment of Weber’s and others’ sexual crimes and the bureaucratic failures that let their conduct go unpunished,” wrote Judge Gorenstein, who had ordered a copy of the report be turned over for his review during the litigation.
Therefore, a 2010 law allowing the IHS to withhold medical quality assurance reviews—for instance, those conducted by doctors after a surgery gone wrong—doesn’t apply, the judge concluded. Judge Gorenstein also rejected an argument by the agency that the report could be kept secret due to its role in shaping agency policies.
“The IHS is reviewing the court’s order and working with HHS on next steps,” said IHS spokesman Josh Barnett, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes IHS. “Quality assurance is an important part of the IHS’ ongoing efforts to ensure the delivery of high-quality health care for American Indian and Alaska Native people,” he said.
An HHS spokesman and a spokesman for the assistant U.S. attorney representing the government in the matter declined to comment.
The agency’s leader, Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, who was appointed by President Trump and commissioned the internal report, resigned his position effective Jan. 20, according to a letter to tribal leaders.
The internal report was compiled by Integritas Creative Solutions LLC, an investigative and security consultant based in Montana. The consultant sent former law enforcement personnel to interview current and former IHS employees and review agency documents from Weber’s tenure.
Carl Caulk, a former U.S. Marshal and Integritas founder, said in an email he was proud of his company’s work and the written report, but wouldn’t comment further due to his company’s position as a contractor.
The Journal-FRONTLINE investigation also triggered several other federal investigations and congressional inquiries, including a White House task force which released a series of recommendations in July. In the days after the initial Journal-FRONTLINE story in February 2019, the IHS overhauled its sex-abuse prevention policies.