A three-member appeals panel made up of University of Kentucky trustees voted Friday to uphold a decision to permanently revoke the medical privileges of Paul Kearney, a trauma surgeon at UK for 27 years.
Kearney appealed two previous decisions by his peers to punish him for an alleged pattern of verbally abusive behavior toward patients, staff and students.
Kearney alleges that he is being retaliated against for questioning financial practices at UK HealthCare under the leadership of Executive Vice President Michael Karpf.
"This was a foregone conclusion," Kearney said after the unanimous decision by the trustees, who are member's of the board's health care committee. "They're trying to silence a voice."
The matter now goes before the full health care committee; if members agree, then Kearney will lose clinical privileges, effectively ending his medical career. He retains his academic rights as a full tenured professor and continues to receive his $350,000 salary.
He filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the university this year and said he will continue to pursue that regardless of what UK does.
Kearney, 61, a popular and respected surgeon at UK, has won numerous teaching awards and is recognized nationally for his trauma work. The hearing room was filled with supporters, several of whom voiced unhappiness with the decision.
He is also polarizing, with a long record of belittling staff and colleagues with profane language, according to documents in his personnel file at UK.
"I think a clear message was sent today," said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. "The university is not going to tolerate a pattern of abusive behavior and verbal violence toward colleagues, patients, staff and students."
Friday was the first time an appeals panel of trustees had been convened in the 50-year history of UK's medical center, according to university officials.
Kearney and university officials each had 20 minutes to argue their cases. Under medical school bylaws, the panel was charged with deciding if Kearney had received due process, if the decision was made arbitrarily or if the evidence did not support the decision.
Kearney and his attorney, Bernard Pafunda, allege that Karpf has weakened faculty decision-making at the hospital, which allows him more power over departmental and college-level budgets. In particular, they believe that he is controlling the hospital through the purse strings of the Kentucky Medical Services Foundation, a separate, multi-million dollar entity that bills for and pays physicians. When Kearney and others questioned that control, they allege, Karpf decided to get rid of him.
UK officials have denied retaliating against Kearney. The surgeon's transgressions, they said, are well-documented in his personnel file, including an instance in 2014 when he called a quadriplegic patient a "f---ing idiot."
Pafunda argued that Kearney did not receive due process because he's never been able to cross-examine any of his accusers. He also brought up the issue of retaliation, saying that Karpf reacted angrily when Kearney suggested during a faculty council meeting that an audit was needed of the medical services foundation and questioned Karpf about potential violations of administration regulations.
"He threatened to fire him on the spot," Pafunda said.
"It's a cover-up," Pafunda said later. "The Board of Trustees is now on notice ... there may be something amiss with KMSF."
Bryan Beauman, an attorney with Sturgill Turner Barker & Moloney who argued the case for UK, said the process of revoking Kearney's medical privileges has been fair and judged by Kearney's peers.
"He has been given multiple chances to change his behavior," Beauman said. "Dr. Kearney can't change."
Kearney said he has received an extraordinary outpouring of public support, but that some surgery department staff were told not to make public statements on his behalf. UK officials denied that anyone had made such a warning.
Andrew Bernard, the chief of trauma surgery at UK who holds the Paul Kearney Endowed Chair, said he came to the hearing to support his partner and mentor.
"Paul certainly has some behaviors that I don't emulate," Bernard said. "Most of his behaviors, though, I do. He taught me to be what I am as a doctor, as a surgeon. Doctor first, surgeon second."
Maureen Hennessy, retired UK anesthetist, also attended the hearing. Kearney, as her doctor and surgeon, saved her life, she said.
"This isn't about Dr. Kearney's personality or behavior," Hennessy said. "This is about Dr. Kearney calling out Dr. Karpf. He's been the same guy for 100 years. Everybody knows him. The trauma room is not the place for wimps."
The full health care committee of the UK Board of Trustees will consider the matter within 30 days, officials said.