University of California President Janet Napolitano vowed to get to the bottom of how UCLA handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a university gynecologist, saying “there were lessons learned” in the case.
“What UCLA is doing is making sure … those kinds of issues don’t happen again,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We just don’t want this happening again. We just don’t.”
In announcing Monday that a former UCLA staff gynecologist has been charged with sexual battery and exploitation of two patients, the university apologized to the community and said it was reviewing how the case was handled.
“We know we could have done better,” a university spokeswoman said.
Exactly how UCLA responded to allegations of misconduct by Dr. James Mason Heaps is now the subject of an internal investigation. But it’s clear university officials knew of complaints for more than a year. Heaps has denied the allegations.
Rhonda Curry, a UCLA Health spokeswoman, said the university launched an internal investigation after receiving a patient complaint in December 2017 of inappropriate and medically unnecessary touching and comments.
During the investigation, the university discovered complaints about Heaps from two other patients, one in 2014 and another in 2015. One of them, Curry said, was a student at the time she saw Heaps. Neither of those complaints was included in the current criminal case.
UCLA notified Heaps in April 2018 that he would not be reappointed, Curry said. In June, he was placed on leave and announced his retirement later that month.
UCLA notified the state medical board about Heaps on June 14, 2018 — about a month after The Times first published its investigation about former USC gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall. The university submitted a second report to the board in March 2019.
Curry said the university has settled claims made by one of Heaps’ former patients but did not provide the settlement amount.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block on Wednesday apologized for harm caused to patients.
“I’m truly sorry for any of our patients who’ve been harmed,” Block said in an interview. “Obviously that’s painful to me. We want every patient to have an outstanding experience. Because of that, we do have to do better.
“I think we followed [UC] guidelines. We alerted the appropriate authorities when we detected issues. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we acted as promptly and as efficiently as I think we should have. So I think there’s room for improvement.”
Block said he knew of no “red flags” concerning Heaps until he was told about the patient complaint that triggered the 2018 investigation.
Napolitano said UCLA is creating an independent committee that includes members such as former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno “to really look at what happened here and what caused the delay in public disclosure, what should the rules be and, just as the campus is looking at those questions, we’re looking at them as a system.
Napolitano said she has “no information” about whether there were missteps in how UCLA handled the case.
“I think the campus is eager to make whatever changes it needs to make sure that this doesn’t happen again…. The campus is undergoing a rigorous review,” she said.
According to Los Angeles County prosecutors, a patient who saw Heaps while the university was investigating him — her appointment was Feb. 28, 2018 — later reported him for inappropriate behavior.
“These are baseless allegations,” Heaps’ attorney Tracy Green said. “He’s a respected, talented and thorough gynecological oncologist who always sought to treat his patients with dignity and respect.”
Heaps’ attorney said one of the patients he is accused of victimizing saw him in 2017 and reported having severe pelvic pain. During the appointment, Green said, Heaps asked about the patient's genital piercing and examined her lower back; the woman accused Heaps of touching her buttocks.
Green said Heaps was looking at her body to identify the reason for her pelvic pain. That patient also accused Heaps of touching her breasts inappropriately. Green said that Heaps only touched the patient’s breasts to identify cysts or other specific problems, and insisted that his practice was in response to presented symptoms.
"Everything was done for a medical reason," Green said.
The patient who saw Heaps in February 2018 submitted a complaint about nine months later that alleged an inappropriate and uncomfortable appointment, Green said. That patient, who identified herself as a 48-year-old mother of three, accused Heaps of improperly putting his fingers in her vagina, Green said.
Green said her client was blindsided by the allegations and by how UCLA handled it. Heaps’ medical license is current, according to the state medical board’s website. His address on the board’s website is listed as an office in a UCLA medical plaza near campus.
Under Napolitano, the 10-campus UC system has made sweeping changes to improve its handling of sexual misconduct complaints. In 2016, UC officials unveiled a systemwide plan calling for mandatory training for all students, staff and faculty; improved support for victims; and more thorough investigations. The policy requires, for instance, that campuses hire confidential advocates to support victims, complete investigations within 60 days in most cases and inform both the accuser and accused of the outcome. The proposals were in part a response to heightened pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which called out universities for faulty reporting of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations.
Napolitano announced in 2016 that all substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct would be public record to increase transparency.