Forty-seven California acupuncturists were charged Friday in connection with an alleged seven-year scheme in which a state licensing official peddled answers to acupuncture licensing exams in return for at least $500,000 in bribes.
Investigators from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office swept through Koreatown and other areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties, arresting 16 Korean acupuncturists on charges of bribery. Others remained at large late Friday.
The sweep capped a yearlong investigation into allegations of corruption in the state's acupuncture licensing system. Some practitioners have welcomed the scrutiny, hoping it will root out what one law enforcement official called a "cancer" in the community.
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said it was possible that the arrests represented just "the tip of the iceberg." There have long been suspicions of corruption in the state examination and licensing system, according to acupuncturists and students.
"They want these unqualified people out," said Herbert Lapin, a deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. "Because if they do something wrong, it affects the entire acupuncture community, so that people will not go to them."
According to Lapin, the alleged bribery scheme centered on Chae Woo Lew, who is believed to have accepted bribes ranging from $1,500 to $27,000 in return for divulging state exam answers during his two terms on the state's Acupuncture Examination Committee.
Lew, who was arrested Jan. 21, allegedly worked through middlemen. Through them, aspiring acupuncturists who were unable to pass the exams obtained from Lew a special code that revealed the correct test answers, according to Lapin.
Investigators said they believe that the acupuncturists arrested Friday represent only a fraction of all the unqualified practitioners who may have become licensed with Lew's alleged assistance. The amount of money involved may well have reached millions of dollars, they said.
"In terms of the length of time and potential amount of money involved, this is the largest single case of corruption that has come to light that I can remember," Reiner said in an interview.
It could not be determined whether acupuncture patients had suffered as a result of poor treatment from unqualified practitioners. Hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians are believed to frequent acupuncturists for treatment of everything from pain to infertility.
One of the risks would be infection from unsterilized needles, medical experts said. For example, hepatitis has been known to be transmitted through acupuncture needles. French doctors recently reported a case involving the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS.
Reaction to the investigation and arrests has been mixed.
Officials of the acupuncture examination committee, which has licensed 3,000 acupuncturists, declined to comment Friday on the case. They said they could not predict whether the committee might consider revoking licenses as a result of the probe.
Dr. Peter Eckman, a committee member and San Francisco physician who is a close friend of Lew, said the committee will wait for the outcome of the prosecution of Lew and the arrested acupuncturists. He called the accusations "vague" but added, "Either way, it's not good for the profession."
Vincent Kim, president of Royal University, an acupuncture academy in Koreatown where, according to the district attorney's office, a former dean and several former students have been implicated in the investigation, insisted that his school has not been involved and is not affected by the district attorney's charges.
"The people who hate acupuncture and who have always hated acupuncture will have closed minds and say, 'I always told you those guys were no good,' " said Dr. Ronald Katz, chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, who has practiced acupuncture himself. "And the people who believe in acupuncture will say, 'Well, there goes the Establishment again trying to stamp out anything that's not traditional.' "
Acupuncture, in which long needles are passed through the skin, stimulating the nervous system, has been used in Asia for centuries. It became popular in the West during the 1970s. California was one of the first states to permit its practice.
Under laws passed by the California Legislature during the mid-1970s, acupuncture education and practice are overseen by the examination committee, an 11-member board appointed by the governor and Assembly Speaker and made up of physicians, acupuncturists and lay people.
The committee, under the Department of Consumer Affairs, has licensed about 15 training programs in California. Acupuncturists must undergo four years of training or receive an equivalent education elsewhere in order to sit for the state exams.