SANTIAGO, Chile — Facing a dozen lawsuits and a criminal probe in the biggest ethical scandal to hit reproductive medicine, Dr. Jose P. Balmaceda sold his Corona del Mar home last summer and boarded a plane to his native Chile, calling the trip a visit to his ailing mother.
But the besieged fertility expert--who escaped the Chilean military junta as an exile two decades ago--has come home. And despite his bruised U.S. reputation, his presence in this city of 4.2 million is playing more like the bittersweet return of the prodigal son.
His lawyer has said Balmaceda will return to the United States "when he is ready," but investigators are doubtful.
Balmaceda, accused with his partners of egg-swapping without patients' consent and financial wrongdoing at UC Irvine's Center for Reproductive Health, is already booked solid with patients at a prestigious clinic nestled near the Andes Mountains where he has applied to join the staff.
His family is settled in an upper- middle-class rental. And though not yet hired at Clinica Las Condes, Balmaceda, 47, is working as a consultant out of an office built for him there in 1993 by colleagues hoping to lure home the man they hail as the father of Chilean reproductive medicine.
Despite the accolades, his tainted homecoming comes at a delicate time for the nascent field of fertility medicine, now facing the prospect of regulation in the conservative Chilean legislature. Even if Balmaceda is eventually cleared, his colleagues say, he drags the UCI scandal to Chile in his shadow at the worst of all possible times.
"There are people who believe that it's better that this whole [scandal] stays buried," said Dr. Ricardo Pommer, who practices at the competing Clinica Las Nieves. "This might make the Chilean law much too restrictive. We are worried."
'We're Not the FBI'
With investigations underway by at least seven agencies into Balmaceda and partners Dr. Ricardo Asch and Dr. Sergio Stone, Balmaceda left Orange County this summer, selling his home and later putting his wife and two youngest children on a plane bound to Chile. The couple's two oldest children have chosen to remain in the United States.
More than two months ago, he applied to join the staff of Clinica Las Condes, one of only five clinics in Chile that offers assisted fertilization. His application is within days of final acceptance, and secretaries at the clinic have penned a long waiting list of patients anticipating his return to practice, said Dr. Fernando Zegers Hochschild, head of the unit for reproductive medicine and one of Balmaceda's closest friends from medical school days.
Clinic officials said they are not able to evaluate the pending allegations against Balmaceda.
"We're not the FBI. We aren't an investigative body, we don't have anything to do with internal tax issues in the United States," the clinic's medical director, Dr. Jaime Manalich Muxi, said last week. "All we know is we have an application from a man who is famous, who is an expert in fertility all over the world. We have to evaluate what the overall effect will be of having him join the clinic."
Balmaceda declined to discuss his situation.
UC Irvine lured Balmaceda and Asch west from Texas in 1986, two years after they pioneered the fertilization technique called GIFT--or "gamete intra-Fallopian transfer"--a procedure where eggs and sperm are implanted into the Fallopian tubes, where conception occurs naturally.
The pair set up a clinic with Stone in Garden Grove and by 1990, the three launched the esteemed Center for Reproductive Health.
But the Dream Team collapsed in May when the university severed ties with the three doctors and filed suit against them, accusing them of transplanting eggs without patients' consent, conducting human research without permission, obstructing university investigations and prescribing a non-approved fertility drug. They are also being investigated for tax and insurance fraud.
Patrick Moore, Balmaceda's attorney, said that after 1989, his client mainly practiced at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills--a satellite of the UCI fertility center--and has never wittingly removed or implanted eggs without consent. His closest friends insist he had no involvement in ethical transgressions.
But university officials have said they believe Balmaceda was involved in the misuse of eggs along with Asch, who directed the UCI clinic. Asch is living in Mexico City.
News of the investigations, lawsuits and staggering allegations of ethical transgressions at UCI has been largely absent in the Chilean media. But the scandal has not escaped Manalich, the clinic's medical director.
"We know. That's my duty," Manalich said grimly last week. He declined to comment on the status of Balmaceda's application, but said it was being processed.