Surgeon barred from practicing after claims of fraud, retaliation, harassment
A Des Moines plastic surgeon accused of sexual harassment, workplace retaliation and Medicare fraud has been banned from practicing medicine in Iowa over concerns about his ability to do so safely.
The allegations against Dr. Ronald S. Bergman, 74, of Bergman Plastic Surgery also involves the surgeon’s girlfriend and former clinic manager, who works as a full-time detective in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Detective Robyn Bartholomew is named as a defendant in two of the civil lawsuits filed against the doctor.
The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the allegations against Bartholomew. She has worked for the district since December 1992.
Earlier this year, Bergman was the subject of a federal investigation into allegations that he routinely “upgraded” his services by billing smaller or short treatments as more extensive and costly services. He was also accused of filing bills with Medicare for services he allegedly provided himself but were actually provided by an assistant or people under his supervision.
Three months ago, Bergman agreed to a settlement that requires him to pay $800,000 to the federal government to resolve allegations of billing Medicare for the work of others in his office.
Last month, in a decision unrelated to the federal investigation, the Iowa Board of Medicine issued an emergency executive order barring Bergman from practicing medicine. The order was issued after Bergman told the board that he did not intend to complete the neurological exams that the board had ordered him to do.
Bergman’s attorney, Marc Humphrey, said he had only limited comment on some of the allegations against his client, but that a hearing on the board’s emergency injunction was scheduled for May 19. “We really feel like the board hasn’t been fully transparent about all of this,” Humphrey said.
Inappropriate texts, worries with tremors
Bergman’s history with the board dates back to 2005, when he was accused of violating the professional boundaries between doctor and patient by marrying a former patient who continued to be treated by one of his own assistants. He was warned and asked to train beyond professional boundaries.
In January 2022, the board entered into another settlement agreement with Bergman, which resulted in a $2,500 fine and another warning. In that case, Bergman was accused of sending inappropriate text messages to an employee. The board also claimed Bergman suffered from a neurological impairment that could affect his ability to safely practice medicine.
To settle matters, Bergman agreed to workplace surveillance, additional training on job boundaries, limitations on his ability to work, and quarterly neurological exams. After Bergman refused to submit to the assessments, the board issued its emergency order.
Humphrey said the board’s request for a neurological evaluation was coupled with unsubstantiated claims that Bergman suffered from hand tremors. As for the restrictions on Bergman’s practice, those were dictated by Bergman himself, not the board, Humphrey said, but because they’re part of the formal agreement Bergman signed with the board, the doctor now has trouble claiming privileges at hospitals in the US to get downtown Iowa .
A full-time district detective worked at the clinic
In addition to the board’s disciplinary action, Bergman has been named as a defendant in four separate civil lawsuits filed by former employees, two of which are still pending:
— retaliation, slander: In February 2020, Dr. Suzanne Kuhnen Bergman and the clinic accused him of making inappropriate sexual comments to her and her colleagues while she was working at the clinic on a fellowship. She claimed Bergman called her “C-” and “cow” and then interfered with her request for hospital privileges. The lawsuit was settled out of court in March 2022.
— Retribution: In March 2020, Sarah Hurm, another former clinic employee, sued Bergman and Bartholomew, alleging that she reported some form of “failure to comply with federal regulations” related to insurance payments to Bartholomew in October 2019. Bartholomew reportedly fired Hurm later that day.
In an affidavit, Bartholomew said she fired Hurm for disobedience and because “she was looking for another job.” The disobedience, she said, was related to Hurm’s “tone” in speaking to her.
In the same July 2021 statement, Bartholomew stated that Bergman had been her boyfriend for two and a half to three years. She said she worked part-time at the clinic from spring 2019 through late 2020, first as Bergman’s assistant and then as the clinic’s superintendent, while also working full-time for the sheriff’s office.
“I stopped by weekly (at the clinic), maybe once a week or a few times after work,” she testified. “Most of it was done on the computer at my house.”
She testified that she had no recollection of applying for or getting a position as director of a medical clinic.
“You don’t know if you applied for this?” Hurm’s attorney Matthew Brick asked.
“I didn’t apply for this, fill out an application,” Bartholomew said.
“Is that something you had background knowledge in? Have you ever been an office manager?” Brick asked.
“How, in – what do you mean?” asked Bartholomew. “Like an office manager?”
“Well,” said Brick, “you said earlier that you have over two decades of public safety experience, so I’m wondering, do you also have an office management background?”
“I think no,” Bartholomew replied. “I ran an agricultural facility where we raised horses and we had employees there.”
Bergman and Bartholomew have denied any wrongdoing. Hurm’s lawsuit is pending and a trial is scheduled for March 6.
— Sexual Harassment, Retaliation: In October 2020, former clinic administrator Peggy West sued Bergman and Bartholomew. She claimed Bergman showed her photos of his penis during an office party and said he would send the photos to Bartholomew. Throughout her tenure, West claimed, Bergman regularly and openly commented on and about women in the office, calling them “stupid C—s” and “f—ing jerks.”
West claimed that after she complained about Bergman’s behavior, he made comments like “don’t do anything you’d regret” and “I need to know you’re loyal to me,” while referencing his alleged ties to what he called “The Mexican Mafia”.
West also claimed Bartholomew is in the clinic three to four days a week, several hours a day. Bartholomew’s specific job responsibilities were unknown to West, despite West’s role as clinic administrator, the lawsuit alleges. Bartholomew, West claimed, frequently walked around the clinic “openly displaying her gun.”
In her lawsuit, West alleged that the Iowa Board of Medicine opened a new investigation against Bergman in 2019 and that she provided “truthful but negative” information about the doctor. After learning of the interview, Bergman allegedly contacted the Des Moines Police Department and reported that West was involved in forgery and theft at the clinic by converting clinic funds for her own use.
In March 2020, West was charged with theft and forgery. Six months later, the charges were dropped at the request of Polk County prosecutors, who told the court they were investigating allegations of “retaliation to criminal prosecution.”
West sued Bergman and Bartholomew, alleging that they persuaded police to file false criminal charges against them in retaliation for sparking a federal investigation into Bergman’s billing practices. The U.S. Department of Justice investigation eventually resulted in Bergman agreeing to pay the government $800,000, of which $200,000 went to West to report the situation to authorities.
Bergman and Bartholomew denied all of West’s allegations. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this week on the eve of a scheduled trial.
— Harassment and Discrimination: In November 2021, Rhonda Swanson, a former administrative assistant at Bergman-Folkers Plastic Surgery, Bergman Plastic Surgery’s predecessor, sued Bergman. Swanson claims that on her first day at the clinic, she was stunned to hear Bergman refer to former female employees as “c—s” and “worthless.”
Swanson also alleges that Bergman had her come to his office more than once so he could discuss his relationship with Bartholomew. He allegedly described the couple’s sexual activities to Swanson on the third floor of the Grand Avenue mansion where the practice was located, and commented on Bartholomew’s other boyfriend’s genitals.
The lawsuit alleges that Swanson was then accused by “Dr. Bergman’s possible involvement in criminal activities” when he claimed to have ties to the “Mexican mafia”. Bergman also brought up the death of his ex-wife, the lawsuit alleges, and alluded to involvement by the “Mexican mafia,” saying she knows how to “get rid of” people.
The lawsuit also alleges that Bergman showed Swanson a nude photo of a woman and asked, “Does she look 50?”
The lawsuit alleges that when West, the clinic administrator, alerted Bergman to concerns that some Medicare billing practices appeared questionable, Bergman laughed and said he could avoid all consequences because of Bartholomew’s tenure with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
At another meeting, Bergman allegedly inquired about the location of the building’s security cameras and asked West and Swanson if they saw his penis as he entered the building half-dressed.
Bergman has denied all of Swanson’s allegations. A trial is planned for March 2024.