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Fertility Clinic Staffer Tells of Suspicions

Scandal: Former biologist at UC Irvine center says she feared wrongdoing was occurring but kept quiet because she lacked proof.

February 29, 1996|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — Teri Ord, a biologist who worked closely with UC Irvine fertility specialist Dr. Ricardo H. Asch for more than a decade, testified Wednesday that she suspected as early as 1991 that there were serious breaches of medical ethics taking place within the university's once-prestigious fertility clinic.

But she kept her concerns quiet even after leaving the university three years later, she said.

Attorneys who witnessed Ord's first day of testimony, which the news media were barred from viewing, reported that she said she became suspicious about whether certain patients had consented to egg or embryo transfers but never aired her concerns with Asch or his medical partners because she feared for her job.

Asch contends that university employees are largely to blame for any "errors" that occurred in the clinic. After a full day of testimony Wednesday, attorneys said it was Ord who offered the most credible--and damaging--testimony that anyone has heard against Asch, whom Ord described as a master of fear and intimidation.

"He was the boss. He was in charge," she said in a brief interview after Wednesday's session. "He told me what to do."

Even gently raising her concerns with a man who was both friend and mentor--he had brought her with him from Texas to California in 1986--was an area she nervously avoided.

"You didn't ask Dr. Asch things like that," she said during the interview. "You didn't question what he did. I never questioned him. I couldn't go and accuse a good and famous doctor of something I had no proof of."

What it came down to, she said, was a lack of compelling evidence and the fact that much of her concern was based on hearsay from other people.

"The nurses never knew for sure either. We didn't know, for example, whether he had gotten verbal consent from the patient--and just didn't tell anybody. We just didn't have proof," she said.

The attorneys who witnessed the deposition said Ord left some doubt about her role at the clinic. But she clarified for them the role of Asch, the principal player in the drama.

"She clearly refuted the lip service that Dr. Asch has been giving to most of the United States about the fact that he knew nothing about the alleged misdeeds, or negligence, or failings on the part of his staff," said Walter Koontz, an attorney representing the dozens of plaintiffs who collectively have filed more than 40 lawsuits.

"Teri Ord was very credible in her testimony that Asch controlled the ship," Koontz said. "He was the captain--she took orders from him and no one else."

Wednesday marked the first of four days of Ord's deposition, which is taking place at a San Antonio law firm.

Ord, 39, lives in San Antonio with her newly born twins, a boy and a girl, and her husband, a fertility specialist and former research partner of Asch.

Her former boss and his two partners, Drs. Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio Stone, are accused of taking the eggs and embryos of scores of women without their consent and implanting them in others. They are the subject of seven investigations.

UC Irvine also has accused them of insurance fraud, financial wrongdoing and research misconduct. Asch and Balmaceda have left the country and are working at clinics in Mexico City and Chile, respectively. University officials say at least seven births have resulted from misappropriated eggs and embryos.

In that regard, Ord testified that while she kept meticulous records for Asch and the Center for Reproductive Health, she had no knowledge of which patients consented to have eggs and embryos removed and never played a role in the unauthorized transfer of reproductive material.

Some attorneys were skeptical about what Ord knew and didn't know.

"It is blatantly apparent that Teri Ord knew that improper egg transfers were taking place, based upon her observations and discussions with other clinic staff personnel," said Lawrence Eisenberg, who is representing several plaintiffs in the case.

Marshall Silberberg, her attorney--who is being paid entirely by UC Irvine--said Ord is completely free of culpability, adding that from a legal standpoint, only a physician could be empowered to obtain consent from a patient for an egg or embryo transfer.

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