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Patient alleges sex harassment at VA

A female patient at the Bay Pines Medical Center has sued the Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging her doctor kissed her on the mouth and pinched her breast.

"All lies," said Dr. Farid Karam, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at the medical center.

The suit comes as the VA struggles to deal with charges of indifferent treatment of sex harassers in the agency. Twelve VA managers have been demoted or forced to retire since 1992 because of sex harassment accusations.

One of the 12, Jerome Calhoun, was allowed to keep his six-figure salary and transfer to Bay Pines despite a VA finding that he sexually harassed a woman at a Fayetteville, N.C., hospital.

In Washington, both House and Senate veterans committees plan to hold hearings on the issue in April.

The suit, filed Thursday by Pinellas County resident Carla Croft in U.S. District Court in Tampa, does not target Dr. Karam personally, but accuses the VA of negligently hiring, supervising and retaining him.

On March 30, 1994, the suit alleges, Croft went to Bay Pines to be examined by Karam. When the examination was complete, the suit says, "he (Karam) bent forward, kissed her on the mouth, and told her she was doing well."

Croft did not respond, the suit states, but as she began to leave the room "Dr. Karam walked next to her, turned to her, pinched the left nipple of her breast, and then said he wanted to see her."

The suit also charges that Karam has engaged in similar behavior toward other women at Bay Pines.

Karam said it was "a lie" that he kissed Croft and "a lie" that he touched her breast.

"She was the last patient in the clinic that day," he said. "I was leaving, she was leaving and just outside the entrance to the clinic I tapped her on the shoulder, in a friendly way, and told her if you need anything let me know.

"I am innocent of all this. I am 68 years old, and I've been married to the same woman for 40 years. Greed pushes people into doing these things."

Several of Karam's co-workers called the Times on Friday to vouch for his character.

Medical Center Director Thomas Weaver said Croft's charges against Karam were formally investigated twice, first by Bay Pines personnel, then by a group brought in from a VA office in Mississippi. In both cases, he said, "there was no supportable evidence to justify them."

But there was a third group that examined the case.

After the first review by Bay Pines personnel, a panel of five or six high-ranking female medical center employees examined Croft's allegations at the request of former medical center director, Thomas Cappello.

They were not asked to make a formal report, and apparently there is no record of what they found.

Toni Lawrie, women veterans coordinator at Bay Pines, served on the panel and said it reached consensus there was "enough doubt" about what had transpired to warrant another investigation.

Weaver said he had little recollection of the panel's work, but agreed "there was as feeling there should be an outside review. It was the appropriate thing to do, but that review also found for the doctor."

Karam denied engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior against other women at Bay Pines, and said no other complaint was ever lodged against him. Weaver would not comment on that.

Inquiry under way in Virginia

Another high-level personnel investigation _ of an unknown nature _ is under way at the VA Medical Center in Salem, Va.

Preliminary findings by a four-member review team led VA officials to place Salem medical center director John M. Presley and associate director William Delamater on administrative leave late last week.

VA officials refused to disclose the reasons for the unusual step.

_ Times staff writer David Ballingrud can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8245, or at