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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : UCI Changes Signal a Fresh Start

June 23, 1995

The dismissal of the embattled executive director of UC Irvine Medical Center and her chief deputy on Thursday ought to provide the opportunity for a fresh start. The two were let go amid allegations that they had retaliated against whistle-blowers and tried to cover up a scandal involving the university's renowned fertility clinic.

It has been clear in recent days that University of California regents need to investigate the center. Now that UCI has made personnel changes, the regents still need to get to the bottom of the problems.

The center's executive director, Mary Piccione and deputy Herb Spiwak, who have denied wrongdoing, will go, and Wendell C. Brase, vice chancellor for administrative and business services, will take over as acting executive director. The change gives the center breathing room.

Piccione was hailed for improving the finances after taking over the medical center several years ago. But her role in the scandal was been sharply criticized by outside auditors.

UCI appeared in an unfavorable light because of its stonewalling about the payment of nearly $1 million to three whistle-blowers who told of their concerns about operations at the fertility clinic. The university shut the clinic down this month and has filed a civil lawsuit charging the three doctors who operated it with a variety of irregularities, including conducting research on patients without their consent. The doctors deny wrongdoing.

The university said it told whistle-blowers to keep quiet about payments to ensure patient confidentiality. But testimony at a state Senate hearing last week indicated that the payments were intended to preserve the school's reputation and make reparations for retaliation. It also became apparent that the university lied when problems were brought to its attention.

At the hearing, Piccione blasted one whistle-blower as "an opportunist" who complained to cover up poor performance. But investigators said that the medical center's staff worked under a climate of fear and that the whistle-blowers were credible.

The regents said they were shocked to learn about the payments. The question that still needs answering is how such a large amount could be paid out without the regents being any the wiser.

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