Former VA doctor picks up pieces after prosecution

For years, Dr. William Weeks' name commanded respect. He was a prominent psychiatrist, a nationally known expert on rural health care, a medical professor at Dartmouth College, a father of six who led the school board in his New Hampshire town, the treasurer of his church.

Then inspectors began looking into a series of contracts drawn up by Weeks in his capacity as a doctor at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, setting off events that led to the loss of his job, a criminal trial ending in his acquittal and the federal government's agreement to pay him up to $800,000 to settle some of his civil claims stemming from the ordeal.

But don't say he won. Weeks, who attempted suicide three times as he fought the charges, ran up a six-figure legal bill, was denied a promotion he had earned and saw his marriage break up under the strain.

Weeks, 47, has been cleared. His name may never be.

"It's just really unfortunate that these things have come to pass to someone who was absolutely not deserving of any of it," said Hilda Heady, a national advocate in the field of rural health care who's known him for years. "I found it incredible that anyone would question his ethics and his work."

Federal prosecutors say they pursued the case in good faith and lost it, while the VA agreed to the payout to settle his claims without admitting wrongdoing.

Like other doctors at the VA's hospital in White River Junction, Vt., Weeks — an 18-year VA employee — had a faculty appointment to nearby Dartmouth, where he was an associate professor.

His writings in medical journal articles — some of which took the view that the VA could better serve its rural veterans with non-VA providers — won him prestige in the medical community but sometimes a chilly reception within the VA.

In 2004, a routine audit led to scrutiny of five Weeks-designed contracts totaling $1.5 million. Finally, in 2009, federal prosecutors working with the VA's Office of the Inspector General charged him with five misdemeanor counts of violating conflict-of-interest provisions.

They also filed a companion lawsuit. Both alleged that Weeks installed himself at both ends of the contracts and funneled leftover money from research contracts into an expense account at Dartmouth that he planned to use to help fund a sabbatical.

Weeks, who made $220,000 a year, contended that his research and spending was above board, and that he followed the policies of Dartmouth and the VA.

In April, a jury in U.S. District Court cleared him of all charges after an eight-day trial. Last month, he came to terms on settlement of a lawsuit he had filed against the VA alleging invasion of privacy, wrongful suspension and due-process violations.

Under it, he was reinstated to his VA job but agreed to resign Dec. 31, a condition sought by the VA.

"I can't go into the VA's personnel decision-making," said Seth Aframe, a federal prosecutor in New Hampshire who represented the VA in settlement talks. The settlement also included a $47,500 payment by Weeks to prosecutors to settle civil claims against Weeks.

"As a result of issues raised in the Weeks case, the White River Junction Medical Center put into place enhanced checks and balances to ensure there are no conflicts of interest in managing joint VA/Dartmouth Medical School research projects," VA spokesman Jim Blue said in a written statement, responding to inquiries from The Associated Press.

Dartmouth, meanwhile, paid $275,000 to settle allegations of improper conduct involving the college's administration of contracts from the hospital, in addition to previously returning $604,000 in contract funds over irregularities found as a result of the audit.

Weeks may have paid the biggest toll, though.

He tried to kill himself twice by carbon monoxide poisoning and once by pills. He says depression and paranoia from the drawn-out investigation and prosecution drove him to it. He had a $3 million insurance policy and wanted family members to get the money, even though he believed himself innocent.

"I was trying to do them a favor, making it stop and leaving them with money, because I saw this horrible end coming. But in their minds, it's just abandonment. I can see that now," he said.

Weeks and his wife have since separated. His relationship with his children, he says, is strained.

To him, the prosecution was a travesty of justice that cheated taxpayers, ruined his life and came to no good — for anyone involved.

"My understanding is their mission is really to drive out fraud, waste and abuse. And that's exactly what this entire legal effort was about — their being wasteful, abusing their power," Weeks said.

Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin says the acquittal and the settlement don't add up to vindication for Weeks, necessarily. He doesn't see Weeks as a victim and says prosecutors did nothing wrong.

"It isn't my job to worry too much about those personal predicaments," Coffin said. "Tragically, they come up in many, many criminal cases. And often times, there are bystanders of criminal offenses, often times family members who are affected by criminal conduct. In this case, he was acquitted, and so those effects are in a way not validated by the fact of conviction. On the other hand, we have a job to do and we did it with integrity and honesty, and that's what we're required by the people of the United States to do."

The settlement, which will see the government paying Weeks $600,000 to $800,000, includes money to settle his claims against the VA and its investigators and his back pay, the amount of which hasn't been determined yet. Weeks says it will all go to taxes and legal fees, $350,000 of which he has already paid.

For now, he is an associate professor of psychiatry and community and family health at Dartmouth, and teaches in its master of public health program. He lives with his father, no longer with his wife and children, who remain in the family home in Lyme, N.H.

He says that he feels less productive now, that the ordeal has taken a toll on his intellectual capacity.

"He's a different person," says Dartmouth colleague William Nelson, director of rural ethics for the medical school. "He's still deflated and trying to rebuild his reputation and character, even though I can't think of anyone who didn't believe in him all along who really knows him and his work and his productivity."

Weeks himself isn't sure what lies ahead.

"I'm trying to figure that out, to be honest with you," he said.