SAN ANTONIO — Teri Ord, a biologist who worked closely with Dr. Ricardo H. Asch for more than a decade, testified here Wednesday that she suspected as early as 1991 that there were serious breaches of medical ethics within UC Irvine's scandal-torn fertility clinic.
But she kept her concerns to herself even after leaving the university three years later.
Attorneys who witnessed Ord's first day of testimony, which the news media were barred from viewing, reported that 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. Ord, however, testified that it was impossible for improper egg transfers to be mere accidents.
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. "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. He was very clearly telling me specifically what to do. It wasn't my place to question him. I didn't have any firsthand knowledge. I didn't know for sure.
"To go against my boss, who was running the practice, who also was very well known, very well respected. . . . I mean, he knows the entire IVF [in vitro fertilization] world."
What it came down to, she said, was a lack of proof.
"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 Wednesday's deposition said that Ord left some doubt about her own role at the clinic. But she clarified for them the role of Asch, the principal player in the drama. In their opinion, Asch will find it hard to dispute her testimony.
"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 some plaintiffs in more than 40 lawsuits.
"Teri Ord," Koontz said, "was very credible in her testimony that Asch controlled the ship. 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's.
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 separate investigations.
UCI also has accused them of insurance fraud, financial wrongdoing and research misconduct. Asch and Balmaceda have left the country. Asch works in a clinic in Mexico City and Balmaceda lives in Chile. University officials say at least seven live 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.
If such material were transferred without a patient's consent, only the patient's doctor could have ordered it and carried out the procedure, she said.
But 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. "As the lead biologist and director of the fertility laboratory and paid employee of [UCI Medical Center], Ms. Ord had a duty to bring the issue to the attention of the appropriate university officials.
"The fact that she was afraid that she could be fired by Dr. Asch is insufficient justification to sit back and do nothing," Eisenberg added. "Her inaction constitutes negligence for which the university will ultimately be held responsible."