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The Doctor Is In; the Verdict Is Out

A doctor thumbcuffs his wife to the steering wheel of the family car during a domestic dispute, holds a gun loaded with hollow-point bullets to her head and threatens to kill her. He's convicted of a felony and serves six months in jail.

But that doesn't mean he should lose his medical license, according to an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

A state medical board is not so sure. Last month, the Arizona Osteopathic Board of Examiners (OBEX)--the oversight board for the state's 1,500 osteopathic physicians--decided it will hold its own hearing in November in the case of Dr. Jerold "Rick" Morgan.

OAH judge Eric Bryant ruled that Morgan, a Gilbert physician, deserves no professional discipline for the assault. Drawing a line between personal and professional conduct, Bryant said the man was "frustrated, hurt and angry" that his wife was having an affair, and "the assault incident had nothing to do with [his] practice as a physician."

The case started in 1995, when Morgan thumbcuffed his wife, Denise, to the steering wheel of his Chevy Suburban, aimed a gun at her head, and shoved the gun in her mouth and vagina while threatening to kill her and himself, according to court documents.

Morgan was angry because he'd taped his wife's phone conversations and discovered she planned to meet with another man for a weekend getaway. According to court papers, he demanded she confess the affair while holding her in the car. He eventually pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated assault last year and served six months in jail. The couple later divorced.

At the sentencing, Morgan was told by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Grounds, "Especially as a professional man, you should be held to a higher standard."

The osteopathic board, which automatically investigates D.O.s accused of crimes, sent Morgan's case to OAH, the state office that holds administrative hearings for other state agencies. One board member said the case seemed "straightforward."

A doctor convicted of a felony has committed "unprofessional conduct" under state law. That doesn't mean a physician always loses his license, but revocation is one of the board's options.

Bryant's ruling, however, said the state had proved Morgan had committed unprofessional conduct "only regarding the felony conviction charge" and recommended "no disciplinary action be taken."

Bryant's recounting of the facts reads like a defense of Morgan's actions.
Morgan's "world came crashing down around him" on the night of the assault when he "inadvertently discovered that his wife of 16 years and mother of his four children was having an affair," Bryant wrote.

According to his attorney, Charles Buri, Morgan has always maintained his wife cuffed herself to the steering wheel as part of a "sex game," although he admits forcing the gun into her mouth and crotch. But as recently as February, Morgan denied the assault in a letter to the judge in his wife's civil suit against him.

Still, Bryant found "Dr. Morgan to be more credible than his wife" and that Morgan "takes full responsibility for his actions during the May 9 [1995] incident and acknowledges that he was wrong and he assaulted his wife."

Morgan was at his "wits' end" and "frustrated, hurt, and angry" when he assaulted his wife, Bryant wrote. Bryant's findings include yet another version of the incident--he said Denise Morgan suffered only "minor injury" when Morgan hit her on the arm with a cell-phone antenna and pushed her against the door; he does not mention the sexual assault.

Bryant also noted the relationship was "often neglected" by Denise Morgan, and that she "would not continue" couples counseling after the incident.

Denise Morgan could not be reached for comment.
Morgan was not likely to repeat the incident, according to a psychologist's report, and had completed counseling, Bryant's decision says.

Because of Morgan's "good reputation," and because "there is no evidence in the record that shows Dr. Morgan has ever mistreated a patient, either medically or personally," Bryant ruled against disciplining him.

But OBEX--unlike the state Board of Medical Examiners that oversees medical doctors--has a reputation for tough discipline. It didn't buy into Bryant's logic.

At an August 22 meeting of the board, Blair Driggs, the board's lawyer, called the ruling a "soap opera rendition" of the facts of the case. "[T]his report is ripe [sic] with errors. . . . I don't think it can stand on its face," Driggs said.

Board members were openly skeptical of the OAH ruling. Dr. Richard Whitaker, OBEX's vice president, said Bryant "seems to paint a very flowery picture of Dr. Morgan." Other board members questioned Bryant's dismissal of Denise Morgan's credibility without any evidence, while others questioned whether this was truly a "once-in-a-lifetime event."

But Morgan's attorney defends the OAH ruling. "I don't believe the [judge] could have found differently based on the evidence presented," Buri tells New Times.

"Sure, he [Morgan] overreacted. He knows what happened was wrong," Buri says. "But nothing like that has ever happened in his practice of medicine. . . . I just don't see anything to be gained by any discipline for what happened. If you're looking for punishment, that's why we have the criminal justice system."

Buri says he'll challenge the board's decision to hold a new hearing in court.

Only 2 percent of OAH's rulings were rejected by state boards and agencies last year, according to Cliff Vanell, head of the office.

Vanell says his office cannot comment on OBEX's rejection because "we have to maintain impartiality."

But Vanell says, "The [judges] call them as they see them. They're in the position to review the facts and make the decision."

Read more New Times' coverage of BOMEX