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Asch Blasts UCI, Media; Says He Is Victim Too

Scandal: Former head of O.C. fertility clinic denies wrongdoing, mourns shattered career in first interview.

February 27, 1996|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — In his first wide-ranging interview, the former director of UC Irvine's scandal-plagued fertility clinic lashed out Monday at what he called a "sloppy," vengeful university and a press corps willing to believe UCI's self-serving lies.

"I blame all of you," Dr. Ricardo Asch said of the mess his life has become.

Appearing thin but well-rested, Asch portrayed himself in back-to-back media interviews throughout the day as a man bewildered and betrayed. He spoke passionately of his derailed career and disrupted family life from a couch in a Mexico City hotel room, making what he called his last effort to set the record straight.

Behind him, as a backdrop, was a collage of photographs--carefully arranged by his attorney--displaying the smiling faces of children the fallen fertility specialist helped to create.

Asch, 48, is accused, along with his two former partners, of stealing eggs and embryos from scores of women and giving them to other patients or using them in research. At least seven live births might have resulted from improper transfers at UCI, UC San Diego and an affiliated clinic in Garden Grove, university officials allege.

Federal officials are investigating allegations that the doctors engaged in mail fraud, tax evasion and fertility-drug smuggling, but no charges against the trio have been announced. All three doctors have denied wrongdoing.

Far from the major perpetrator, Asch said he too is one of the scandal's victims.

He said he had to sell his two houses and his cars in the United States, leaving his Santa Ana practice and the country last fall because he and his family have been so maliciously attacked. He, his wife, Silvia, and three of his five children are now living in Mexico City, where Asch says he is teaching and doing research.

"To me, it's a tremendous change of life that I don't think I deserve. I have given all my life over to helping people have children and to work in an academic environment to improve the field of reproductive medicine. . . . I hope this is what people are going to remember me for . . . and not about these things that I don't bear full responsibility [for.]"

The doctor had few words of solace for patients who believe they have been victimized--especially for the approximately 40 women suing him.

"My opinion is that there are . . . people that don't have a case and they are jumping on the bandwagon . . . to try to use the opportunity for their own financial benefit rather than to create justice," he said.

The doctor said he had "absolutely not" ever intentionally transferred eggs and embryos to other patients or researchers without the donors' consent.

"If I have ever done that, you know, by mistake, well, I feel very sorry," he said.

However, repeating testimony he gave at his sworn deposition in Tijuana last month, Asch said he had not considered it his responsibility to check or to track patient consent forms. That, he said, was the responsibility of university-employed nurses, whom he declined to identify.

Again and again, Asch said he has been treated unfairly by journalists too eager to accept the university's version of events.

"What I am amazed [about] is . . . during all of this process, from the moment it became public, I have not heard of any of the good things that I have done in life--never. I think there is a campaign to try and destroy my reputation rather than trying to present what Asch, the man, both as a professor at UCI and now, did . . . for science and the community."

The doctor reserved most of his criticism for UCI, saying it was the university's "sloppy" management and mistakes by its employees that gave rise to the scandal.

"I feel [university officials] know the mistakes that were done, and I'm sure they know intimately their responsibility in this. . . . They want to find a scapegoat in me," Asch said.

"Suddenly now, I am the fall guy . . . for cases that were my patients, that were not my patients, patients that I've seen, patients that I have never seen, patients that have procedures when I was never in the country."

Byron Beam, a lawyer who represents UCI on the fertility matter, rejected the notion that the university is making Asch the scapegoat.

"It's totally absurd," he said. "The man is the architect of his own situation."

He said Asch had final say in hiring employees at the clinic and that Asch retained the right to control and direct the staff.

"The university simply paid them," he said.

Beam said that UCI provided the facility and equipment but that Asch ran the operation as he saw fit. "It was basically his operation."

Officials have declined to pay for Asch's defense, saying he acted outside the scope of his employment and engaged in fraud.

That stance visibly rankles Asch, who said Monday that he is running out of money to defend himself.

"The university has that responsibility, to pay for my defense," under the terms of his contract, Asch said.

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