Island veterinarian resigns from state board, ethics questioned

In 2007, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania dedicated a library to Dr. Steven Atwood. — Photo courtesy of School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

The Massachusetts Division of Licensure asked Dr. Steven Atwood, a well-known Martha’s Vineyard veterinarian, to resign his position as chairman of the state Board of Registration in Veterinarian Medicine last month, according to Jayda Leder-Luis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Ms. Jayda Leder-Luis said the board is looking into the allegations raised in a 2009 lawsuit against Dr. Atwood, but she did not directly respond to a question that asked if he was asked to resign in response to ethics questions.

Although the court criticized the ethics of Dr. Atwood’s receipt of $56,100 from an elderly West Chop woman, whose pets the veterinarian had cared for, a Dukes County Superior Court judge found no wrongdoing on the part of Dr. Atwood and dismissed a lawsuit brought by the woman’s son alleging that he improperly accepted large sums of money from the elderly client who suffered from periodic alcohol-related dementia, according to court documents.

Dr. Atwood, known for his roles in academic and government positions, resigned on April 16 in a brief letter that offered no reason for his resignation. It followed a confrontation at the Board of Registration’s monthly meeting a few days earlier with a Fox 25 news reporter who asked about the court decision.

On May 1, the office of Governor Deval Patrick wrote to Dr. Atwood thanking him for his years of service on the Board of Registration in Veterinary Medicine.

“Your dedication has made a tremendous difference and we hope that you will continue to remain civically engaged in the Commonwealth,” wrote Michaela Ross, director of boards and commissions for the governor.

Rosemarie Haigazian, an Edgartown attorney who represents Dr. Atwood, explained Dr. Atwood’s decision to resign.

“Dr. Atwood was not asked to resign, it was discussed, did he want to resign, they were concerned what was going on,” Ms. Haigazian said. “He considered it and then he did resign.”

Court case

According to the decision issued by Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice John Cratsley, Dr. Atwood accepted and cashed seven personal checks made out to him, and one made out to his veterinary practice, Animal Health Care Associates, over an eight-week period in 2004, from Jean Knowles Goodman. The checks totaled $56,100. Five of the checks to Dr. Atwood were in identical amounts of $10,000. Two of the $10,000 checks were dated the same day, September 18. Two other checks for $10,000 were both dated October 4. There were no billings from the veterinary practice that corresponded with the checks Ms. Goodman wrote.

Dr. Atwood cared for two pets owned by Ms. Goodman, who lived in Cincinnati and summered on Martha’s Vineyard for years. She was 85 years old at the time of the allegations.

Ms. Goodman’s son and legal guardian, Timothy Goodman, filed suit against Dr. Atwood, after the elderly woman’s accountant alerted him to bank statements showing unusual payments to Dr. Atwood.

In his answer to the lawsuit, Dr. Atwood said the payments were gifts freely given to him in appreciation for years of veterinary care for Ms. Goodman’s pets.

Cash gifts

In response to a message left for Dr. Atwood, Ms. Haigazian contacted The Times.

“It was our position at trial, and it’s our position now, that these were gifts,” said Ms. Haigazian, who represented Dr. Atwood at the trial. “This is not a case about taking advantage of anybody.”

Judge Cratsley’s decision agreed with Dr. Atwood’s position and found that the preponderance of the evidence offered by the plaintiff did not support a charge of wrongdoing on the part of Dr. Atwood. The judge dismissed the lawsuit after a 2009 bench trial in Dukes County Superior Court.

While he said the plaintiffs did not prove that Ms. Goodman was incapacitated by mental illness or unable to make her own financial decisions, the judge did criticize Dr. Atwood’s behavior, at the time she was writing him large checks.

“While Dr. Atwood’s repeated acceptance of considerable sums of money from an enfeebled woman certainly raises questions as to his ethics, there is, in my view, insufficient evidence in the trial record from which to infer that Dr. Atwood exerted any improper influence to procure those checks,” Judge Cratsley wrote. “This is a troubling case because it should have been apparent to Dr. Atwood by September 18, 2004, when he personally accepted his first checks from Mrs. Goodman, that this elderly woman was suffering from some sort of mental illness, whether Dr. Atwood recognized it as such or merely sensed something was amiss.”

Judge Cratsley also refused to order the plaintiff to be reimbursed the money Dr. Atwood received.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld Judge Cratsley’s ruling on appeal, and the Supreme Judicial Court declined to hear a further appeal.

In a phone interview with The Times, Tim Goodman said he continues to believe Dr. Atwood took advantage of his mother, while she was suffering from dementia, including severe memory problems.

Mr. Goodman said he asked a friend to contact news organizations about the case, after the unsuccessful appeals of the Superior Court decision.

“My concern was that he would go and do this to somebody else,” Mr. Goodman said. “Sour grapes? Sure, I felt bad this guy wasn’t held accountable. I did not reopen this out of sour grapes.”

Regulatory role

Until April 16 when he submitted his resignation, Dr. Atwood was chairman of the state regulatory board that licenses veterinarians, monitors their work to ensure they practice according to the laws of Massachusetts and the board’s established standards and code of conduct, and disciplines veterinarians for wrongdoing.

The code of conduct for veterinarians in Massachusetts does not prohibit a veterinarian from accepting gifts from a client.

Dr. Atwood’s website lists several other influential positions in academia and government.

He cites an undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming, a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Health Sciences School of Medicine in Antigua, and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The website lists credentials including membership in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in England, membership on the Board of Overseers for the University of Pennsylvania School of veterinary medicine, and induction into the National Academies of Practice in Washington, D.C.

A library at the University of Pennsylvania bears his name. The library was built with a $2 million gift from a woman who wanted the library named after Dr. Atwood, and wanted to remain anonymous.