University of California attorneys Thursday asked for a court order to block public disclosure of information from depositions in lawsuits filed in connection with its fertility clinic scandal.
University attorneys argued in court papers that the move was necessary to protect the privacy of patients, to reassure publicity-shy witnesses and to protect the integrity of future jury pools. They also said it was needed to prevent a "circus-like atmosphere" such as the one at last month's four-day deposition of fertility doctor Ricardo H. Asch, the central figure in the scandal.
That proceeding was marked by a false bomb scare, the theft of a court reporter's notes, an acrimonious exchange of public accusations among attorneys and the early departure of Asch--supposedly because of the large media presence. Though the deposition was closed to the public, attorneys held impromptu news conferences during the breaks and after each day's session, and someone in attendance leaked daily transcripts to a newspaper.
Several critics blasted the university's request as another effort to shield the embarrassing details of the fiasco from public view.
"The university should not fear the truth," said Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who sits on the UC Board of Regents and has previously accused UC officials of covering up the scandal. "We are a public university, paid for by the taxpayers of this state. We have no right to withhold [this] information."
Byron Beam, a university-hired attorney, said Thursday that the motion is not an effort to squelch information. The material will be available for public scrutiny at the time of the trial, Beam said.
Beam said he filed the request with Orange County Superior Court Judge Leonard Goldstein mainly to keep any transcripts, videotapes or other evidence out of the media before the trial. But the wording of the motion appears to cover any information gleaned during depositions, whether it is written testimony or verbal discussion of that testimony.
Beam said he may narrow the request so that it does not preclude attorneys from talking about the closed proceedings. "That is a legitimate concern," he said.
A hearing on the motion is set for March 8. It apparently will not affect next week's scheduled deposition of fertility clinic embryologist Teri Ord--a key witness against the doctors in the cases.
The cases involve allegations that three doctors at a UC Irvine fertility clinic stole the eggs and embryos of scores of women and implanted them in others or used them in research. The doctors and the university have denied wrongdoing. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed in the scandal, and at least 22 would be covered by the proposed order.
University critics said the broad motion amounts to a request for a gag order and is an ill-fated attempt at a cover-up. Some said that most cases are bound to be settled, so the promise of disclosure at trial is an empty one.
"I don't think it's going to fly," Theodore Wentworth, an attorney representing several patients, said of the motion. The court "would be very hard-pressed to muzzle a civil case. . . . [University attorneys] want the judge to participate in a hush program."
Wentworth and others said the motion is a continuation of a cover-up that began when the university paid out nearly $1 million in confidential settlements with three whistle-blowers in the scandal.
"Clearly, there's something they don't want to come out," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), chairman of a Senate committee that held a hearing on the scandal last summer.
"It's 'too dangerous' for the public to know. . . . It's deeply disturbing that a public university has behaved this way all along. It is a continuation of their standard practice of minimizing disclosure."