The text messages from the psychiatrist to his new patient began with offers to help her find another job, after she had come to him for help with work-related anxiety and depression.
The patient would owe Dr. Ely Pelta a favor, though, and his text messages made clear how he wanted to be repaid. She needed a “sugar daddy,” Pelta wrote to the woman, and he wanted her to be his “sugar baby,” according to records from the Florida Department of Health, which charged the Coral Springs psychiatrist with sexual misconduct in October 2016.
The Florida Board of Medicine suspended Pelta’s medical license in August after the patient, identified in state records by the initials B.R., complained to health officials that the psychiatrist had peppered her with increasingly suggestive text messages over 10 days in May 2014.
Pelta’s punishment, which included a fine and reprimand, was part of a settlement that he reached with health department prosecutors, who cited the psychiatrist’s clean record as justification for the agreement.
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But Florida health officials have known for years about another case with similar allegations against Pelta that nearly resulted in a settlement — until the patient backed out of an agreement to testify against him.
In 2006, a South Florida doctor reported Pelta to the state health department for trading psychiatric sessions for sex with a woman he had been treating for anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse.
Prosecutors alleged that Pelta plied the patient, identified in state records by the initials A.N., with prescriptions for sedatives, including Ativan, Trazodone and Xanax, and that he used the drugs to coerce her into sex. Under the settlement Pelta negotiated with the health department to resolve the 2006 charges, he would have been forbidden from treating female patients without another Florida licensed healthcare professional to supervise.
But when the settlement fell through because the patient wouldn’t testify against her psychiatrist, the health department dismissed the charges.
Pelta continued to see patients and prescribe drugs for another decade.
Florida statutes governing medical practice prohibit a licensed doctor from using the patient-physician relationship to engage a patient in sexual activity. A patient is presumed to be incapable of giving free, full, and informed consent to sexual activity with his or her physician.
The new case began in May 2014, when Pelta began treating patient B.R. for anxiety and depression from job-related stress, according to the health department’s records.
Soon after their first session, the records say, Pelta texted his patient about her treatment saying he would use connections to get her a new job and “suggesting that Patient B.R. would owe him a favor.”
Then Pelta’s text messages turned sexually suggestive, when the doctor “indicated that he would be naked the next time Patient B.R. came in.”
In another text, the health department alleged, Pelta “told Patient B.R. to focus on him and indicated that he was naked.” More text messages informed the woman that Pelta was going to “celebrate by getting naked,” according to the records. Ten days after the messages began, the patient went to state health authorities to report Pelta.
In August, when Pelta faced the charges at a Florida Board of Medicine hearing in Miami, the psychiatrist sat silently beside his attorney, Evelyn Cobos, as she told the panel that her client had “voluntarily suspended himself” and stopped practicing medicine in March — nearly three years after barraging his patient with sexually suggestive text messages, and six months after the sexual misconduct allegation had been lodged.
“My client understands the severity of the allegations,” Cobos told the medical board. “He is remorseful.”
Pelta could not be reached for comment after the meeting. His attorney wouldn’t offer further comment.
But Dr. Lacresha Hall, the Boynton Beach psychiatrist who reported Pelta to the state in the 2006 case, said the profession has very clear standards.
“You’re not supposed to interact with your patients in that way … because of the power dynamic,” Hall said this week. “It’s psychiatry 101. We’re not friends with our patients. We don’t take gifts from our patients. We don’t ask them for advice. You don’t even acknowledge patients when you see them in public.”
Hall said that she reported Pelta after his former patient, whom Hall had started treating, told her that Pelta had given the patient free sessions if she sat in his lap while he fondled her breasts.
The subsequent state investigation found Pelta began making sexually suggestive comments and gestures early in his treatment of the patient — similar to the 2014 case.
From the health department’s 2006 case records on Pelta: “[Pelta] would refer to Patient A.N.’s breasts as ‘his girls’ and would frequently state ‘Let me say goodbye to the girls’ while hugging her in a standing position when Patient A.N.’s sessions were concluding.”
About one year after he had begun treating the patient in April 2004, according to the records, Pelta called her at home the day before an appointment and told her to come to the office to pick up a prescription telling her that he “really needed” oral sex. He also asked her to dance for him while he watched and exposed his genitals to her, according to the records.
By March 2006, Pelta and his patient were having sex, records say, but she had become uncomfortable with the way he controlled her. Her final session with Pelta took place in August 2006, and two months later, the patient began treatment at a Boynton Beach drug and alcohol rehab clinic, where she met Dr. Hall, the psychiatrist who reported Pelta to the state.
According to the case records, Pelta denied the relationship to health department investigators, saying that the patient promised to pay her bill but never did and that she demanded he buy her a car. He accused her of “becoming coquettish” and attempting to manipulate him, records say.
A.N. told state investigators that she had not reported the psychiatrist because she was depressed and felt flattered by the attention and that she often lied and manipulated Pelta.
But Hall said the burden for maintaining a professional relationship is always on the doctor.
“When you have someone with a mental health issue,” she said, “there are questions around coercion, their ability to consent, the fear of saying no, and retaliation.”
In November 2006, the patient reported Pelta to the Coral Springs Police Department and accused him of sexual battery. Police reports state that detectives told the patient Pelta had committed a crime by having sex with his patient, even if it was consensual.
But they needed to record a sworn statement from the patient, and despite repeated follow-up calls from police, she never called back. The health department subsequently dismissed the charges — and all records of the investigation were removed from the online physician profiles maintained by the health department.
Currently, the website includes links to the agency’s 2014 complaint against Pelta, the settlement agreement and the medical board’s final order. But the complete case file, including investigative reports, was only made available to the Miami Herald after a public records request.
Brad Dalton, deputy press secretary for the Florida health department, said Pelta’s profile no longer shows the 2006 case because the agency removes complaints from physician profiles whenever charges are dismissed. That means patients such as B.R., who received the sexually suggestive text messages from Pelta in 2014, have no way of knowing about any previous charges.
Hall said she was frustrated by the 2006 case’s outcome.
“Would I like other patients to know about it? Yes,” she said. “Do I wish I had told other patients of mine who had seen Dr. Pelta? Yes. But I wasn’t able to do that as well because he wasn’t convicted. So I couldn’t really even warn my patients.”
For the 2014 sexual misconduct case against Pelta, the Florida medical board reprimanded him, imposed about $24,000 in fines and legal costs, suspended his license for at least six months and ordered training in, among other things, medical ethics.
Some board members at the August meeting said they wanted to permanently revoke his license. But that would have required the board to reject the settlement and pursue revocation, which would have allowed Pelta to return to practice in the interim, said Ed Tellechea, the medical board’s legal counsel.
Pelta also signed up for counseling through Professionals Resource Network or PRN, a voluntary program for doctors with substance abuse, psychiatric or physical illnesses that interfere with their ability to practice medicine.
The doctor had not yet been evaluated to determine whether he has an impairment, such as substance abuse, that led to his sexual misconduct. If he is found to be impaired, the board could consider that information as new evidence and seek to revoke his license, Dalton said.
Before Pelta can return to practice, he will have to serve at least six months of suspension and receive an evaluation from PRN. Pelta also must appear before the medical board, which reserved the right to impose conditions on his license, such as probation and a ban on treating female patients.