IRVINE — On a day when UC Irvine officials vigorously denied trying to hide the truth about improprieties in the school's famed fertility clinic, the university acknowledged Thursday that it paid about $900,000 to three whistle-blowers in settlements that required them to keep quiet about the fertility center.
University officials confirmed late Thursday that they had reached separate financial settlements with three whistle-blowers--one for slightly less than $500,000, the others for about $300,000 and $100,000. The university said the confidentiality clauses were needed to protect the integrity of investigations into the Center for Reproductive Health and to preserve patient confidentiality.
A lawyer for Dr. Ricardo H. Asch, a center director who has been accused by the university of wrongdoing, described the settlements as "hush money."
In the first detailed interviews by top UC Irvine officials since the scandal broke three weeks ago, administrators expressed frustration with critics who have accused them of dragging their feet in acting upon allegations of egg-stealing, financial improprieties and other misdeeds at the Center for Reproductive Health.
"At no time did we try to suppress the truth," Executive Vice Chancellor Sidney Golub said. "At no time did we try to avoid investigation of this tough issue."
But university officials also confirmed that they had reached separate financial settlements with the three whistle-blowers that include confidentiality clauses keeping them from disclosing information about the fertility center.
Ronald G. Brower, Asch's criminal defense attorney, said he is disturbed that the university is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to potential witnesses in possible civil and criminal cases involving his client.
"Lawyers and lay people have a term for this--it's called hush money," Brower said.
Golub said earlier: "We have hushed up nothing."
Officials said the financial details of the settlements were not available Thursday but would be made public later.
UC Irvine's response comes after a landslide of reports in the news media about allegations that Asch and two partners transplanted eggs without permission, conducted research on human subjects without patients' consent and pocketed money owed to the university. Asch also has been accused of prescribing a drug not approved by the government.
In a scathing lawsuit May 25, the university accused the doctors of blocking their investigation into the charges. The three physicians deny any wrongdoing.
Thursday for the first time, the university administrators released documents indicating that their system for monitoring human research had broken down in the case of the fertility clinic.
"This apparent oversight . . . has alerted the campus to a completely unacceptable situation in which human subjects research may have been conducted without institutional review," Golub said in a Feb. 4 letter to federal regulators investigating the alleged research misconduct. "Addressing this issue and developing a plan for remediation is the highest priority for the office of the vice chancellor for research."
Letters released by UC Irvine on Thursday show that the university has been under intense scrutiny by federal investigators since January because of the alleged research misconduct, and has scrambled to respond to their sternly worded inquiries. The federal Office for Protection of Patients From Research Risks has the authority to pull more than $14 million in research funding from UC Irvine if regulators are not satisfied with the university's actions.
"Let there be no doubt that OPRR expects to have at its disposal all records necessary to the successful completion of the OPRR review of [Irvine's] compliance with the requirements for the protection of human research subjects," F. William Dommel Jr., an attorney for the agency, wrote in an terse April 27 letter to Golub.
Documents show as well that the university alerted the California Board of Pharmacy in August and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April of its findings that a clinician at the fertility center had illegally imported and dispensed an unapproved fertility drug, HMG Massone.
According to letters to both agencies, the clinician gave the drug to at least nine patients from January, 1993, through February, 1994, and "probably directed a shipment of the drug on one occasion via Federal Express to Florida."
Though the name of the doctor was excised by the university before the documents were released, officials confirmed that it was Asch and that the other doctors at the clinic were not implicated. UC Irvine administrators alleged that the drug--similar to an FDA-approved drug called Pergonal, which they emphasized did not harm patients--was shipped through the mail from Argentina.