A former VA mental health worker was sentenced to probation Thursday after admitting to sexual abuse of two patients at the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center in 2015.
Charles W. Davis of Tomah pleaded no contest in Monroe County Circuit Court to one count of sexual exploitation by a therapist, a felony, and misdemeanor charges of fourth degree sexual assault and lewd and lascivious behavior.
According to a criminal complaint, Davis, a peer support specialist, made repeated sexual advances to two patients, including a 26-year-old veteran receiving treatment for past “military sexual trauma” who told VA police that Davis called her into his office and exposed himself. A 32-year-old patient said Davis sent her sexually explicit pictures of himself and that she gave him oral sex in his office.
Following the terms of a plea agreement, Judge David Rice sentenced Davis to two years probation on the misdemeanor charges. He faces 150 days in jail if he violates the conditions, which prohibit him from working in the mental health or substance abuse fields.
Davis, 49, was not convicted of the felony exploitation charge, which will be dismissed after two years if he meets the terms of a diversion agreement.
Davis did not address the court, but attorney Robert Osborne said his client, a 24-year Army veteran who served two deployments, has had no formal training as a therapist or in the ethics of the field.
“Basically he was given a job as a contact person for people in treatment at the VA,” Osborne told the judge.
District Attorney Kevin Croninger conceded the legal ambiguity of Davis’ job but said his conduct was “detestable, gross, juvenile and chauvinastic” and “completely inappropriate for the role he was in at the VA with young women in what I would call a compromised state.”
Peer support specialists have experienced mental illness or substance abuse themselves and have training in helping others. They are certified in Wisconsin by the state Department of Health Services, although the state provides no way of independently verifying that certification.
According to the VA, Davis was hired in 2013 as a housekeeper and promoted several months later. VA spokesman Matthew Gowan said Davis was certified by the VA’s own peer support training program, which requires more ongoing training than the state’s program.
Rice said Davis’ lack of criminal record and military service speak to his character but don’t excuse his behavior.
“Whether you qualified as a therapist, you should have known your conduct was unacceptable,” Rice said.
Davis was arrested in January 2016, a year after the Tomah facility came under scrutiny for high levels of opioid prescriptions and a pervasive culture of intimidation and retaliation against employees who spoke out.
Davis was suspended without pay after his arrest, and his bond prohibited him from having contact with the Tomah facility. Tomah VA Director Victoria Brahm issued a statement after Thursday’s hearing saying she was initiating the process to terminate his employment.
“Mr. Davis’ actions and behaviors, confirmed by the court today, were egregious and alarming. They are not compatible with the values of the Tomah VA Medical Center,” Brahm said. “I want to assure our veterans, staff and volunteers that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated.”