SANTA ANA — Two of three doctors implicated in the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal have left the country, and some investigators are worried that one or both may not be coming back, according to sources close to the investigations of the clinic.
Dr. Ricardo H. Asch left about three weeks ago for a speaking tour in Mexico and Europe, and Dr. Jose P. Balmaceda has been in his native Chile for two months, according to their attorneys. The attorneys insist that the two doctors plan to return, even though they are not legally compelled to do so.
Asch's tour had been planned for more than a year, according to his attorney, Ronald G. Brower. "He still resides in the U.S. and his family is still here and he has an Orange County residence. He is planning on returning," Brower said.
But two sources familiar with the investigations say they are afraid that the doctors--who face civil lawsuits, a medical board investigation and a criminal probe by the U.S. attorney's office--have little incentive to come back. One said the fact that both doctors have personal and financial ties abroad is worrisome.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Balmaceda's long absence is of particular concern because he has cut most, if not all, his ties in the United States by selling his Corona del Mar home in July and leaving his Laguna Hills practice.
"There is concern that both doctors have skipped out," said one source.
In a nationally publicized scandal, Asch, Balmaceda and a third partner, Dr. Sergio C. Stone, have been accused by UC Irvine of stealing human eggs and embryos from patients and giving them to other women. They are also accused of financial wrongdoing, insurance fraud and research misconduct.
The Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs Service are looking into possible tax evasion, mail fraud and smuggling of unauthorized fertility drugs. The doctors have repeatedly denied any intentional wrongdoing. All told, at least seven agencies are conducting investigations of the now-closed Center for Reproductive Health.
In surprise raids last month, the U.S. attorney's office and FBI led several agencies in searches of the doctors' homes and offices, collecting everything from tax returns and checkbooks to patient records and a child's personal computer. No criminal charges have been filed against the three, leaving no possibility of extradition proceedings.
Officials with the U.S. attorney's office have repeatedly declined to discuss whether such charges might be filed.
Short of criminal charges and extradition, it would be next to impossible to force the doctors to return, attorneys and other sources familiar with the case said.
"As far as I know, this is still America," said Patrick Moore, Balmaceda's attorney. "People can't go and snatch people or kidnap them and bring them back. When [Balmaceda] comes back it will be because he wants to."