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Did Father Know Best? : Paul Fleiss Was Everyone's Favorite Baby Doctor and the Perfect Dad of Six of His Own. So How Did He End Up Facing a Federal Rap With His Daughter Heidi?

April 09, 1995| Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer who broke the story of Heidi Fleiss' call-girl ring in 1993.

He is probably the last man anyone would picture as the Hollywood Madam's dad. Pediatrician, scholar and lecturer, Paul Fleiss told other people how to raise their kids. Even now, in homes across Los Angeles, mothers quote his signature advice: "Just love 'em," the doctor would say with a smile. "You can't love your kids too much."

It's an adage that carries a bittersweet irony. After 30 years as one of Southern California's most sought-after physicians, the baby doctor who nurtured thousands of other people's kids has become an accused co-conspirator in his daughter's fall from grace. More than four months have passed since Heidi Fleiss was convicted on felony pandering charges. Now, as she contests that verdict in state court, federal authorities are preparing to try her and her father in a case of fraud and tax evasion.

Authorities have charged that the 61-year-old doctor hid the profits from Heidi's call-girl ring, acting as a straw man in the purchase of her $1.6-million Benedict Canyon home and funneling her lucre through his bank accounts. Their witnesses include his youngest daughter, Shana Fleiss, who has been compelled to testify against her father and sister in exchange for limited immunity when the case goes to trial, tentatively scheduled for April 24.

The doctor, meanwhile, has called the prosecution an unfounded "travesty." "My life, my reputation, my medical practice, my family are all under attack," he wrote in one court document.

By all rights, the latest set of accusations should come as an anticlimax to the blitz that was the Heidi affair--one minute, the Fleisses were just another urban family; the next, they were the stuff of tabloid TV. But the father's indictment has shaken his family and community even more deeply. The arrest of a wild kid they can understand. But the good doctor too?

His youngest son can scarcely speak of the case without bursting into tears; his ex-wife calls it "a catastrophe." Close friends say his indictment has extinguished the pediatrician's characteristically sprightly air, turning him stoop-shouldered and frail almost overnight. Heidi says she can scarcely sleep for worrying about her dad: "This was just a bull- - - - state prostitution case," she says, "and for them to make him responsible for my problems is so unfair."

To the doctor's patients and peers, meanwhile, his predicament is a tragic mystery. Their Paul Fleiss, they insist, is a compassionate and guileless man. They talk about the times he stayed late to bandage a child's cut, and the times uninsured families paid him with fresh vegetables and live hens. How, they ask, could such a seemingly upstanding citizen land in such an unseemly mess?

It's a question that prompts pat, Oprah-style responses: This is the fallout, defenders say with a sigh, when wild kids con good dads. But the backdrop is considerably more complex, and, in an odd way, more universal. The Fleiss family's story is a tale of nurture and nature, of the parents we aspire to be and the parents we are, of the battle between a father's influence and a child's character.

The doctor is a staunch advocate of indulgence and love, of downplaying the negative and keeping an open mind. But those who know him wonder: Was it optimism or denial that kept him from realizing that his daughter might get into serious trouble someday? Was it open-mindedness or an inability to say no that kept him from getting tough with his errant kid?

"I don't think that there was anything I did that led to Heidi being arrested for what she allegedly has done," he says.

To many of his defenders, his predicament is simply the result of loyalty. "I think he's only guilty of loving and trusting his daughter," says Dr. John Goldenring, a colleague for 10 years who now practices pediatrics in San Bernardino County. "You can't put a person in jail for that."

Authorities naturally disagree. Federal attorneys have amassed tax records, loan papers and canceled checks, some allegedly signed by Heidi's clients. Prosecutors have submitted a sealed statement from Shana Fleiss that they say will prove the doctor knew Heidi's money was illegally earned.

But in a series of recent interviews--his first since Heidi's June, 1993, arrest--the physician, who has pleaded not guilty, denies any wrongdoing and says the evidence will prove nothing but his innocence.

"If anyone should be embarrassed by all this, it should be the government," he says, "(for) charging Heidi with a victimless crime and bringing these very peculiar charges against me. I don't know why they are bringing this case. I didn't do anything wrong."

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