LAS VEGAS (AP) - A former Las Vegas endoscopy center physician and an employee are scheduled to stand trial starting Monday on criminal charges stemming from a widespread hepatitis C outbreak blamed on unsafe and unsanitary clinic practices.
Dipak Desai, a former prominent gastroenterologist and Nevada state Board of Medical Examiners member, and former nurse-anesthetist Ronald Lakeman each have pleaded not guilty to 28 charges that could send them to prison for life if convicted. The counts include criminal neglect of patients, reckless disregard of persons, theft, obtaining money under false pretenses, insurance fraud and murder.
A final jury was being seated Monday.
Prosecutors Michael Staudaher and Pamela Weckerly argue that Desai pinched pennies so much at his clinics that incurable liver disease was spread from patient to patient through the reuse of opened vials of anesthetic, colonoscopy scopes and bite plates.
The outbreak became public when the Southern Nevada Health District in February 2008 notified more than 50,000 Desai clinic patients to get tested for blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis and HIV. Health investigators later determined that nine people contracted incurable hepatitis C at two Desai clinics, and that hepatitis C infections of another 105 patients may have been related.
The murder charge was added last year after infected former patient Rodolfo Meana died in the Philippines at age 77. Meana, a former Philippine military officer, had become a naturalized U.S. citizen after emigrating from the Philippines in 1997.
He and five other patients contracted hepatitis C through unsafe injection practices on Sept. 21, 2007, at one Desai clinic, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, according to prosecutors and health investigators. Another patient was infected on July 25, 2007, officials said.
Desai's defense attorneys maintain he's unfit for trial because he is so incapacitated by strokes and other physical ailments that he cannot assist in his defense. The trial was delayed for years for competency hearings, but defense attorney Richard Wright has been unable to persuade Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair or the Nevada Supreme Court to postpone it for another round exams.
Desai, 63, was escorted into the courtroom by his wife, Kusam, and sat at a defense table next to Wright and co-counsel Margaret Stanish, staring straight ahead when jury selection began April 22.
Lakeman's attorney, Frederick Santacroce, argues that his client was a competent nurse-anesthetist who performed more than 50,000 outpatient medical procedures over many years without a complaint. Lakeman, now 65, quit working for Desai after the hepatitis outbreak became public, but was nevertheless swept into "public hysteria" surrounding the case, his lawyer said.
A former co-defendant, Keith Mathahs, 77, pleaded guilty last December to five felony charges — including criminal neglect of patients resulting in death, insurance fraud and racketeering — in a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Desai and Lakeman. Mathahs could get probation or up to six years in state prison.
The criminal case is separate from civil lawsuits that yielded jury findings that held drug manufacturers and the state's largest health management organization liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs.
A federal criminal trial that had been scheduled to begin May 7 for Desai and his former office manager, Tonya Rushing, has been postponed until Aug. 20. In that case, Desai and Rushing have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and health care fraud charges. They're accused of overbilling for anesthesia and medical procedures at Desai's three clinics: Endoscopy Center of Nevada, Gastroenterology Center of Nevada and Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center in Las Vegas.
Desai has declared bankruptcy and surrendered his medical license.